Are you a reader, a teacher, a librarian? Do people send you links to impressive home shelving, beautiful libraries, literacy projects? They do for me and I often love what I’ve seen, especially when it’s something with a comments platform full of positivity about libraries and reading and happy memories of influential teachers, books, and librarians.
But, I also feel a sense of conflict. Yes, those shelves are exceedingly cool. Yes, those books do look awesome grouped by color. Yes, the intentions behind building a little library are fantastic. Yet, I often find myself having one thought over and over again: Libraries are more than collections of books.
Libraries are more than just collections of books.
Libraries are more than collections of books!
So when a friend sent me a page about an alternative to the public library system that had sprung up where this person lives, I felt curious, then deflated as I read more. Curious in a positive way too–I love to see others loving books. It’s very cool that a group of folks have gotten together and begun putting together the things they want to see in libraries. That’s a time and financial commitment and speaks to the dedication people still have around sharing the written word in the face of all these (misguided) headlines about the death of reading and publishing and intelligence. The halcyon days of fiction blah lazy millennials blah blah. The deflation came from wondering if they weren’t playing into the hands of those that want to close public libraries all together. Why should taxes pay for leisure reading, right? If people are willing to invest their own money and time, let them and send those tax dollars elsewhere. (eek.)
Public libraries especially can offer so many services. They can help you learn to use a computer or software program. If you already know how to use one, they can provide stable access to the Internet and word processors and email accounts for those without. They can facilitate speakers and experts to help you in your job search and write your resume and go back to school. They provide students and other researchers and family genealogists with a key to otherwise prohibitively expensive databases and resources. Inter-library loans, e-books and audiobooks, meeting and lounge spaces, photocopiers, printers, scanners, newspapers, magazines, films, comics….
Ultimately, I’ve learned through my lectures and reading that too many people want to take those services away in the name of conservative and big business politics. The ‘intrinsic value’ of these services can be difficult to measure, so librarians can be forced to think in terms of ‘customers’ through the door and circulation numbers to prove their worthiness to those who hold the funding money. That’s the basic root of why I hold back to offer total, sweeping support to public library alternatives. If people don’t go to the library, those in support of closing them can say, “See, no one uses them,” and cut funding, push for privatization, or close the community libraries altogether. So in that way, saying the library doesn’t provide us with what we want so we got it ourselves, could potentially contribute to further deterioration of budgets.
Speaking in general terms as well, I wonder if a movement like this could devalue librarians themselves. Obviously librarians participate in all kinds of radical and offbeat library projects. Again, so many are fantastic and valuable to those that use them, which is part of my personal conflict. Still, many people don’t understand what librarians do. If I had a £ for every time someone said, “Why do you need a Master’s degree? Aren’t you just putting books back on shelves?”… So, I worry that all of these virtuous projects aren’t somehow perpetuating that image of all you need is a person to alphabetize a collection of books and ta-da, you’ve got a staffed library.
This is a complex issue. People should organize, they should support one another in meeting their community needs, they should read and research and have access to the information they desire. There is historical precedence to lend support to this. Plus, it’s potentially elitist to say, “You’re not doing it correctly and you don’t understand,” and even trickier still to say, “Let the government take care of it for you instead.” Still, I’m left with these nagging thoughts on the impact of these projects and I don’t know where to come down.
What are your thoughts?