My husband sent me this great article from the New York Times, “Denying New York Libraries the Fuel They Need.” Jim Dwyer provides some startling facts, like this: “The city’s libraries — the fusty old buildings, and a few spiffier modern ones, planted in all five boroughs — had 37 million visitors in the last fiscal year. . . . So the city’s libraries have more users than major professional sports, performing arts, museums, gardens and zoos — combined.”
Dwyer notes “No one who has set foot in the libraries — crowded at all hours with adults learning languages, using computers, borrowing books, hunting for jobs, and schoolchildren researching projects or discovering stories — can mistake them for anything other than power plants of intellect and opportunity. They are distributed without regard to wealth.” And yet, he goes on to explain, the city’s professional sports teams have enjoyed hundreds of millions of dollars in capital funding and tax incentives while the public library system faces a fight each year for adequate funding.
Here’s where I’d better remind you, dear readers, that my opinions are mine and not that of my employer, a public library.
That fight goes on in your town too — it’s known, in public sector parlance, as the budget process. In New York, it seems, libraries have to fight for their hours every year, as part of a carefully choreographed dance between elected officials who are haggling with each other for their preferred projects. I am guessing that process isn’t so different in your town, or mine, just on a smaller scale than New York’s.
Meanwhile it seems every year there’s some non-librarian academic expert who comes along and fuels the idea that libraries are obsolete. Public officials love this, and it does libraries a disservice during the budget process. The latest is John Palfrey. Palfrey’s book is called Bibliotech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google and the Washington Post review is provocatively titled, “Do We Still Need Libraries?” Palfrey’s main point seems to be that libraries as we remember them from our childhoods — and as I’ve noted in this blog before, in most towns across the country, they are still very much the same — must transform themselves into highly connected digital hubs, or die.
Palfrey should ask Dwyer to show him around the libraries of New York (or any neighborhood in America, I’d wager) and talk to the patrons who are using what he rightly notes are the backbone of egalitarian society. In our public libraries, where information is free and available to all citizens, people are reading or making readers of their kids. Mostly in print, which is still a better deal for libraries and the taxpayers who support them, because physical books don’t expire after a certain number of checkouts or a certain amount of time, as many library e-books do. When they open these books, people are discovering all the things that make us human, and what that means to them. They’re getting to know their neighbors. They’re becoming informed citizens.
Nostalgic and old fashioned? Ok, if you say so, digital experts. But in a society where there is almost nowhere to be quiet, study, or think, libraries offer that space. In a society where it’s hard, on a limited income, for retired people to meet friends and chat over the day’s newspaper, libraries offer that community. In a society where after school enrichment for kids almost always costs more than the working poor or even the middle class can afford, libraries offer that opportunity. In a society where the under and unemployed have almost nowhere else to access the internet, learn computer skills, apply for jobs, or print important documents, libraries offer those resources. In a society where the mentally ill, the disabled, the homeless, and the recently imprisoned are often unwelcome, libraries offer radical hospitality — we are open to all.
From information and books to early literacy, education and support for marginalized adults and new Americans, community and small town (or big city) culture, public libraries’ work is not diminished by people claiming that Google can replace your local librarian, or that libraries should “hack” themselves into “‘nodes in a larger network’ of organizations and must move toward ‘the digital, networked, mobile, and cloud-based library'” Palfrey envisions. And imagines private philanthropy will fund.
Space. Community. Opportunity. Resources. Books. These are real life, everyday services of public libraries. That we fund vast caverns where millionaires play sports and then leave libraries to fend for themselves every budget cycle sounds crazy because it is. That we think placing our hopes in some hypothetical network of charitably funded digital collections will improve upon what’s already going on in library branches all over America is silly. Build your fancy networks, go ahead, but in the mean time, don’t patronize the vital role of public libraries as “nostalgic” when for many ordinary citizens, that so-called nostalgia is actually a vital service they rely on.