Popular Culture in Libraries – Argue a Point

Home Forums Student forums Leena Popular Culture in Libraries – Argue a Point

Viewing 4 reply threads
  • Author
    • #2757
      Leena Riethmuller

      There were no specified arguments to choose from this week, so I chose to respond to the Twitter chat discussion about popular culture. Robynne suggested that the “distinction between high culture and popular culture [is] irrelevant”, which is a concept that intrigued me, especially in relation to libraries selecting what sources of information are important to include in a collection. In this post I will unpack the terms, “High Culture” and “popular Culture”, examine the distinction between them and discuss the implications for curating library collections.

      High culture’ describes particular art and literature that is considered to have significant cultural value. Often it is perceived to be appreciated by an elite group of people, identified by wealth or education. This exclusivity fosters a divide between those privileged enough to access high culture, and those who have not been provided access to it, based on location, education, finance or a combination of these things. ‘High culture’ can provide critical insight, interpretation and new perspectives on culture.

      ‘High culture’ exists in contrast to ‘popular culture’, a term first used in the mid 1900s to indicate a selection of ideas, attitudes and imagery popularised in mainstream media. It is often associated with the arts and entertainment industries, and extends to some politicians and sportspeople. In the 1950s and 60s, separation between high culture and popular culture was blurred by artists and designers, who brought  popular culture into the gallery (a high culture space), and placing art works (high culture objects) in everyday life contexts. The credibility of popular culture is questioned because it participates in capitalist, Western-influenced agendas, and demonstrates a human tendency to follow trends without criticism. However, scholarly research provides an examination and critique of popular culture, proving that value can be found in examining the ideas behind popular culture, or in the popular culture itself.

      The work of many contemporary creative practitioners continues to blur distinctions between high culture and popular culture. For example, the singer, Lady Gaga’s performative presence and elaborate music videos are made in collaboration with artists and designers, creating music videos and performances that are critical of contemporary aesthetics. Alternatively, performance artist, Marina Abramovic, is achieving popular culture status, by reaching audiences beyond the art scene, transforming art into spectacle, and attracting the attention of pop icons. Popular culture also invites diversity and difference (although not equality) into the public eye in a way that high culture typically does not, because it is fuelled by the interests of an elite group. For example, Laverne Cox of Orange is the New Black, has become an icon for feminist and transgender issues based on her talent as an actor and the success of the television show.

      As evidenced, the boundaries between high culture and popular culture are increasingly unclear. This presents a problem for libraries, as they sometimes distinguish content of collections based upon a distinction between the two. Hence, defining and separating aspects of culture may limit what content is included in collections. If culture can no longer be distinguished as “high” or “popular”, institutions may instead be open to interpreting information of cultural importance in new ways, without labels attached. The distinction between ‘high culture’ and ‘popular culture’ is irrelevant because whatever users are accessing to learn about themselves and their society, it should be included in collections.

    • #2763
      Katherine Lee

      Great argument Leena! I completely agree. As you say users need a variety of different sources to create their self identity. It is not the task of librarians to educate people but to aid their interests and self exploration. However, I do sometimes wonder whether public libraries collections are too far on the popular culture side. They tend not to collect much non-fiction and seem to support only a quite narrow range of interests. While this does cater to the needs of a large community of users, I wonder about the non-users who might consider using the library if it collected resources that they were interested in.

      • #2768
        Leena Riethmuller

        Thanks Katherine. I agree that there should be more non-fiction in public libraries. It gives the sense that non-fiction texts are reserved for academic environments and not for the general public. Very sad! And even sadder when you want access to resources that aren’t available to the general public. I have a lot of friends who lament losing their access to university libraries. And YES, good point, maybe non-users aren’t using public libraries because they don’t offer the resources the users want…?

    • #2766
      Stacey Larner

      Perhaps labels would still be useful, but instead of labels that imply a value judgement, descriptive labels would make more sense? I’m thinking quickly that there could be provocative art, critical art, entertaining art, personal art, etc. Both high and low art could use any one of these labels. There will always be arts critique and I think there always should be, but I do think “high” and “low” is pretty subjective and you’ve given great examples of the blurred lines (SORRY couldn’t resist!).

      • #2769
        Leena Riethmuller

        I like your idea for labels Stacey. I think it would be more helpful and inclusive to use more descriptive terms than hierarchical terms… like critical, entertaining, personal etc. I agree that there needs to be criticality about art, and about everything!

    • #2779

      Hi Leena, I’m glad I gave you a topic for this week’s blog post 🙂 For me, I wasn’t trying to say that pop culture and high culture are the same thing, but that the “distinction” between them isn’t really relevant for any purpose, other than categorising things for the sake of categorising them. As Stacey points out though, sometimes it’s helpful to have labels! I think Lady Gaga and Marina Abramovic are great examples of where popular culture and high art can meet and create a whole “other” and it’s great to have women distinguishing themselves in what was a pretty male dominated art form initially.

      There are important differences between the two kinds of culture and you rightly point out that pop culture invites diversity and difference, for example. The feature of pop art that appeals to me most though is the way it subverts ideas about “high” culture, particularly subverting the idea of originality by referring back to pop culture icons (like Marilyn Monroe in Andy Warhol’s art). Something about subversiveness just draws me every time. During the week Ruth referred to a quote from Michael Moore  that fits here “They (librarians) are subversive. You think they’re just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything. They’re like plotting the revolution, man. I wouldn’t mess with them.” I loved this! That’s who I want to be. Not the person swallowing whole what I’m told is art or how a library should be 🙂

      • #2784
        Leena Riethmuller

        Thanks for the idea for my topic. Yes, I was sure you didn’t mean popular culture and high culture were the same thing. I thought that making an argument against trying to distinguish culture with those labels would be useful for making an argument for developing collections inclusive of diverse resources. It was a sentiment I had thought about and I enjoyed the chance to do some reflection and research about it. 🙂

        That’s quote is so good, Robynne! I totally think librarians can shape culture and improve things for the better. I am with you, it’s the kind of librarian I want to be too.

      • #2911
        Rachel Kersley

        I love that quote Robynne, and I think that’s the sort of librarian a lot of us want to be. Something I find really interesting in a similar vein, is the way that librarians are so often stereotyped as quiet and almost conservative, when so many of us are absolutely subversive – we want to change the world by sharing information.

        Linking this back a little to the actual post, I think that sticking to definitive labels of ‘high’ and ‘pop’ culture, in addition to being something of a value statement can lead to people not experiencing something because of that label. Whereas if it was given a more nuanced label – or no label at all – they might discover something they really enjoy. In other words, sticking to hard and fast labels might help with organising information, but it doesn’t necessarily help people to find or experience it.

    • #2838
      Steven Walker

      The fact that you have gone and done all this research to back up your argument is a great thing. I have been using books to do mine, and not online books but the good old days of walking into a library and hiring one. I notice that you have cross examined popculture in a fluent manner here. Well done..I almost get a “feeling” from your last post that you are not sure whether libraries will distinguish these two seperate clash of cultures, to which i must even admit , i have never heard of high culture before.

Viewing 4 reply threads
  • You must be logged in to reply to this topic.