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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Libraries, Socio-economics, and the Ten Million People March

Plenty of big name folks have come out in defense of libraries lately.  For example, the wonderful Wil Wheaton has talked briefly about his love of libraries here and author Philip Pullman has written an extensive defense and political rebuttal here.  They're certainly no the only ones talking about the problem libraries are facing in the U.S. and the U.K.  Massive budget cuts in the U.S. have left many libraries struggling to keep doors open or services available; the same seems to be true of U.K. libraries (though I willingly profess my ignorance of the U.K. library system and will refrain from speaking directly about their services in this post).  The one thing I don't see people talking about, however, is the socio-economic problem that library closures and cuts represent.  Most defenses have given a nod to the value of libraries to middle class and poor families, but
few have actually dug into why libraries are essential, if not indispensable, to those with the greatest need.

You see, libraries are an immense access point for information and crucial social services.  In the U.S., a great deal of libraries (though not all, sadly) offer Internet services, job search and resume help, daycare in the form of storytime and book clubs, research aid, and many other things that I can't think of at this moment.  We can pretend all we want that everyone has Internet at home, but the reality is that many don't, even people who have big fancy college degrees.  Why?  Because some of those fancy people are unemployed.  Some of those people might have been scraping by before the recession, and are now cutting back on the luxuries they once had so they can keep feeding themselves.  Libraries make it possible for these people to look for jobs, to research, and even to get access to materials that they once bought from a bookstore (i.e., books).

But here's the kicker.  Because libraries are access points for all kinds of information (including "regular" knowledge), the removal of libraries from public access (i.e., closing them through budget cuts) means denying people without financial power from access to the knowledge that would liberate them from ignorance.  Ignorance is, as such, a powerful political tool.  The longer you keep the people blind to reality (either by destroying public education by making it impossible to teach critical thinking skills or simply denying them access to national news sources and so on), the longer you can maintain power.  Closing libraries is never about cutting down on government spending.  It is always about power.

Why?  Because the only people who will be affected by library closures (with rare exception) are those without a great deal of disposable income.  They are the ones who suddenly lose access to the services and knowledge that libraries provide.  Those with disposable income won't be affected in a negative way unless they are of the crowd who uses libraries or understands their value (but such understanding folks are not the people who are the problem, since they too are defending libraries, like Pullman, who is far from being Mr. Poor).  In fact, those with disposable income will see nothing but benefits as their taxes (theoretically) go down or remain the same.  The rest of us will be left with a gap.

That gap will damage generations to come.  If we allow libraries to be closed, then we are allowing the power dynamic to shift ever more unfavorably against us.  That balance is already tipped at a disturbing angle towards those who already have financial power.  The wealthy have all the money and the rest of us are scrounging for scraps.  Libraries are just one more assault by those with power (and financial security) on the ability of everyone else to keep themselves from the peasantry.  They are the lords on high, basking in their green glow while the executioner hangs our libraries.  We can't stand by in the crowd and watch that happen. That's our future being hung from the rafters.  It's even worse for those who can't afford to buy the Internet for themselves and use the slightly-crazed Google to search through our literary history, because they are already losing hope that the future will hold anything good for them.  If we let people take away libraries, what kind of hopeful, American dream-y future are we proposing to give our children or the children of others or the people who most need those places of informational worship?  Libraries are a part of the American Dream, even if it's all a mythic fantasy we tell our children when they are young.

What we really need is a Ten Million People March for libraries.  The U.K. has it right.  There are people protesting there, and more power to them to use their voices to tell the government to screw itself.  More power to Philip Pullman for laying straight that nasty bag of snakes that is politics.  More power to Wil Wheaton and all the librarians and bloggers, here and elsewhere, whose posts I haven't read yet, all of whom have written about why we need libraries -- because the children need them to have those wonderful experiences of discovery or to learn or to become lovers of books...

We need a march in the U.S.  Lots of them.  All at once.  With celebrities and authors and politicians and poor people and middle class people and those few powerful people who believe that libraries are the gateway from peasantry to something slightly better.  Maybe I missed those marches.  If so, we need to have them again.

Because if I ever have children, I want to be able to take them to my local library and look up at the big sign over the door and say, "This place is going to change your life."

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  1. Kathryn Alexander4:47 PM

    Here in Quebec, the problem is a bit different: there have never been anywhere near enough libraries, library materials, or staff to meet international standards. However, the crisis hit less hard here, so there are fewer cuts...

    It is interesting to note that the anglophones (who were richer and better-educated) had more libraries and earlier than the francophones, and that the number of libraries increased dramatically at the same time as the level of education went up among the French-speaking majority... (the 1960s, during the Quiet Revolution, a period of secularisation and national - Quebec - pride among other things).

  2. I didn't know that. Thanks for the info. Still, even a minor hit is bad. You should never cut from libraries (unless there is excess spending or some such).

  3. Interesting argument.

    I wonder if we might see a return to the private library system?

    After all, the first "public" libraries were really collectors who opened up their private collections.

    Should we who believe in libraries start doing this in our community? Should we starts opening up our collections in order to take up the slack?

    Just a notion I have been mulling over that has nothing to do with your post really, is only tangentially related in topic, but one I wanted to voice to someone who cares.

  4. That depends. Are we opening private libraries and charging a per-entry fee? If so, how much? $1? $10? $0.50? The amount you charge will impact people differently. Libraries are obviously paid out of our taxes, so they're not truly "free" in any real sense. I'm not opposed to the opening of private libraries for public use, but I'd be very cautious to suggest that it is good for everyone if the amount charged to make those volumes accessible is disproportionately in favor of better-off people.

    It's a nice idea, though. It's all in the implementation.