July 9, 2010
Are libraries unnecessary?
July 9, 2010
Their budgets and staffs are shrinking, but people continue to rely on them.
By Marilyn Johnson
The United States is beginning an interesting experiment in democracy: We're cutting public library funds, shrinking our public and school libraries, and, in some places, closing them altogether.
This has nothing to do with whether the libraries are any good, or whether their staff provides useful service to the community. The budget of the country's highest-circulating library, in Queens, N.Y. - named the best system in the United States last year by Library Journal - is due to shrink by a third.
Los Angeles' libraries are being slashed, and, beginning this week, their doors will be locked two days a week. In Philadelphia, the mayor has threatened the latest in a series of library budget reductions.
Such cuts and close calls are happening across the country. The rationale is that we won't miss a third of our librarians and libraries the way we'd miss a third of our firefighters and firehouses. But I wonder.
I've spent four years following librarians as they dealt with the tremendous increase in information and the ways we receive it. They've been adapting as capably as any profession, managing our public computers and serving growing numbers of patrons, but it seems their work has been all but invisible to those in power.
I've talked to librarians whose jobs have expanded with the demand for computers and training, and because so many other government services are being cut. The people left in the lurch have looked to the library, where kind, knowledgeable professionals help them navigate the bureaucracy, apply for benefits, access social services. Public officials will tell you they love libraries and are committed to them; they just don't believe they constitute a "core" service.
But if you visit public libraries, you will see an essential service in action. Librarians help people who don't have other ways to get online, can't get the answers they urgently need, or simply need a safe place to bring their children.
I've stood in the parking lot of the Topeka and Shawnee County Library in Kansas on a Sunday morning and watched families pour through doors and head in all directions to do homework or genealogical research, attend computer classes, read the newspapers. I've stood outside New York City libraries with other self-employed people, waiting for the doors to open and give us access to the computers and a warm, affordable place to work. I've met librarians who serve as interpreters and guides to communities of cancer survivors, Polish speakers, teenage filmmakers, and veterans.
The people who welcome us to the library are idealists who believe that accurate information leads to good decisions, and that exposure to the intellectual riches of civilization leads to a better world. The next Abraham Lincoln could be sitting in their library, teaching himself all he needs to know to save the country.
While they help us get online, employed, and informed, librarians don't try to sell us anything. Nor do they broadcast our problems, send us spam, or keep a record of our interests and needs, because no matter how savvy this profession is at navigating the online world, it clings to that old-fashioned value: privacy. They represent the best civic value out there - an army of resourceful workers that can help us compete in the world.
But instead of putting such conscientious, economical, service-oriented professionals to work helping us, we're handing them pink slips. The school and public libraries in which we've invested decades and even centuries of resources will disappear unless we fight for them.
Communities that support their libraries will have an undeniable competitive advantage. Those that don't will watch in envy as the Darien Library in Connecticut hosts networking breakfasts for the unemployed, and the tiny Gilpin County Public Library in Colorado beckons with a sign promising "Free coffee, Internet, notary, phone, smiles, restrooms, and ideas."
Those lucky enough to live in those towns, or those who own computers or have high-speed Internet service and on-call technical assistance, will not notice the effects of a diminished public library system - not at first. Whizzes who can whittle down 15 million hits on a Google search to find the useful and accurate bits of info, and those able to buy any book or article or film they want, will escape the immediate consequences of these cuts. Those in cities that haven't preserved their libraries, those less fortunate and baffled by technology, and our children will be the first to suffer.
But sooner or later, we'll all feel the loss, as one of the most effective levelers of privilege and avenues of reinvention - one of the great engines of democracy - begins to disappear.
Marilyn Johnson is the author, most recently, of "This Book Is Overdue!" This appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
Posted by tumulty at July 9, 2010 8:59 AM
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