In Praise of Public Libraries

From The New York Review of Books:

Years ago, I lived in a remote mountain town that had never had a public library. The town was one of the largest in New York State by area but small in population, with a couple thousand residents spread out over about two hundred square miles. By the time my husband and I moved there, the town had lost most of its economic base—in the nineteenth century it had supported a number of tanneries and mills—and our neighbors were mainly employed seasonally, if at all. When the regional library system’s bookmobile was taken out of service, the town had no easy access to books. The town board proposed a small tax increase to fund a library, something on the order of ten dollars per household. It was soundly defeated. The dominant sentiments seemed to be “leave well enough alone” and “who needs books?” Then there was the man who declared that “libraries are communist.”

By then, through the machinations of the town board, which scrounged up $15,000 from its annual budget and deputized me and two retired teachers to—somehow—turn that money into a lending library, we had around three thousand books on loan from the regional library consortium tucked into a room at the back of town hall. We’d been advised by librarians at the consortium that five hundred library cards would take us through the first year. They took us through the first three weeks. Our librarian, whose previous job was running a used bookstore, turned out to be a master of handselling, even to the rough-and-tumble loggers and guys on the road crew who brought their kids in for story time and left with novels he’d pulled for them, and then came back, alone, for more. Books were being checked out by the bagful; there were lines at the circulation desk. Children especially, but sometimes adults, couldn’t believe it was all free.

By year’s end we had signed up about 1,500 patrons, and there was a book club, a preschool story hour, movie night, and a play-reading group. High school students, many of whom did not have Internet access at home, came in the afternoon to do their homework. People pressed books into the hands of strangers who did not stay strangers for long. And it occurred to me one Saturday, as I watched quilters sitting at our one table trade patterns and children clear the shelves of The Magic School Bus series, racing to check them out, that the man who had said that libraries were communist had been right. A public library is predicated on an ethos of sharing and egalitarianism. It is nonjudgmental. It stands in stark opposition to the materialism and individualism that otherwise define our culture. It is defiantly, proudly, communal. Even our little book-lined room, with its mismatched furniture and worn carpet, was, as the sociologist Eric Klinenberg reminds us libraries were once called, a palace for the people.

. . . .

A statement issued by the Public Library Association in 1982 called “The Public Library: Democracy’s Resource” said:

The public library is unique among our American institutions. Only the public library provides an open and nonjudgmental environment in which individuals and their interests are brought together with the universe of ideas and information…. The uses made of the ideas and information are as varied as the individuals who seek them. Public libraries freely offer access to their collections and services to all members of the community without regard to race, citizenship, age, education level, economic status, or any other qualification or condition.

Free access to ideas and information, a prerequisite to the existence of a responsible citizenship, is as fundamental to America as are the principles of freedom, equality and individual rights.

The public loves the public library. Klinenberg cites a Pew Research Center study from 2016 that showed that more than 90 percent of Americans consider the library “very” or “somewhat” important to their community. Pew researchers also found that about half of all Americans sixteen and older had used the library in the past year. Even so, libraries are often convenient targets for budget cuts. After the financial crisis, in the years 2008–2013, for example, New York City eliminated $68 million from the operating budget of the New York Public Library, which resulted in a dramatic drop in staff hours and in its acquisition budget. (A fair amount of Ex Libris is given over to poignant behind-the-scenes discussions about budgets.) But it wasn’t just the New York Public Library that was suffering. A study by the American Library Association around the same time found that twenty-one states reported cuts in library funding.

. . . .

n 2008 the private-equity billionaire Stephen Schwarzman donated $100 million to the cash-strapped NYPL. The library’s flagship Beaux-Arts building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, which opened in 1911 and took sixteen years to complete at a cost of $9 million (plus $20 million for the land on which it sits), now bears his name. One hundred million dollars is a lot of money, but it pales in comparison to the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie, the patron saint of libraries (and rabid industrialist), whose $55 million largesse—the equivalent of $1.6 billion today—funded 2,509 libraries worldwide, 1,679 of them public libraries in the United States, between 1886 and 1919. Sixty-seven of them were in New York City, sixteen of which are still in use.

Carnegie’s devotion to libraries was long-standing. His father helped found the Tradesmen’s Subscription Library in Dunfermline, Scotland, where he was a weaver and a member of the failed Chartist Movement. When industrialization cost him his job, the family emigrated to the Pittsburgh area, and at thirteen, after only five years of formal schooling, Carnegie was sent out to work, first as a bobbin boy in a cotton factory and later as a messenger for a telegraph company. Working boys were allowed to borrow one book a week from the private library of Colonel James Anderson, a successful local iron manufacturer and veteran of the War of 1812. Carnegie wrote in his autobiography:

It was from my own early experience that I decided there was no use to which money could be applied so productive of good to boys and girls who have good within them and ability and ambition to develop it, as the founding of a public library in a community which is willing to support it as a municipal institution. I am sure that the future of those libraries I have been privileged to found will prove the correctness of this opinion.

Carnegie’s first American library, in Braddock, Pennsylvania, was built about a hundred years after the founding of the first public library in what would become the United States. In 1790, the residents of Franklin, Massachusetts, chose to allow a collection of books donated to the town by its namesake, Benjamin Franklin, to be circulated among its residents without charge. In so doing, they chose not to follow Franklin’s lead: in 1731 he had founded a subscription library in Philadelphia. Massachusetts was also the site of the first major public library system, Boston’s, founded in 1854. Carnegie’s Braddock library was different from these: in addition to books, it had a 964-seat, velvet-curtained theater, a basketball court, and a swimming pool. Its mission was to exercise both mind and body. These days, the Braddock library, an imposing, turreted building up the hill from Carnegie’s shuttered steel mill, has fallen into disrepair, and a group is attempting to raise $10 million for renovations—not from a person of great wealth, but one billion pennies donated by the public. (They’ve raised $40,000 so far.)

Carnegie libraries stretch from one end of the country to the other, the 106 in New York State eclipsed by 142 in California. Six of these were in Los Angeles, a city of just over one hundred thousand at the turn of the twentieth century when Carnegie made his grants; three are still in use. No Carnegie money was used to build what would become the city’s Central Library. Founded in 1872 as a small fee-based organization whose five-dollar annual subscription was out of reach for most citizens, by 1933 it was circulating more books than any other library in the country.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

PG has a long relationship with libraries. Whenever his family lived near a library while PG was growing up, he loved checking out books, reading them as quickly as possible, then, after a few weeks, going back for more. When PG was a freshman in college, he worked in a large university library. When the PG offspring were young, Mrs. PG and PG frequently came home from the local library bearing lots of books for children and adults.

A lovely public library is available about ten minutes from Casa PG. Another lovely public library is available about 15 minutes away in a different direction. PG has not been in either library for several years.

OTOH, PG does check out overpriced ebooks from traditional publishers from a service provided through a network of public libraries.

PG’s offspring seem to enjoy visits to the public library with their children, but those visits are much less frequent than in former days. Each of PG’s grand-offspring who is in school has been issued an iPad which they use on a daily basis for assignments, reading, etc. A variety of Kids Edition Kindle Fire tablets is also available around the house and used regularly by those who are and are not yet in school.

PG understands that some families are not able to afford such electronics for their children and some schools are in the same situation. But do those families regularly go to the library for the benefit of either the children or their parents?

Would libraries provide a better service to their communities if most or all of the physical books were placed in storage, with each book available on request and the remainder of the library space given over to internet-connected computers?

Is the answer to this question the same if only physical children’s books were available in the library’s public spaces, with physical books of interest primarily for adults placed in storage?

Is the answer to these questions the same for both those who are under ten years of age and those who are over forty years of age?


8 thoughts on “In Praise of Public Libraries”

  1. Would libraries provide a better service to their communities if most or all of the physical books were placed in storage, with each book available on request and the remainder of the library space given over to internet-connected computers?

    Depending on whether or not you think it’s a better service to the community to give the homeless access to online porn. Perhaps that’s overly cynical of me, but it does strike me as not an insignificant percentage of the use of the library computers already there. As for whether they would provide a greater benefit than books, I don’t know. PG’s point that his own grandchildren don’t go to the library because they own devices for electronic reading would probably be equally true with computers–the ones with the e-readers have the internet at home too. Of the ones that don’t, I don’t know how many would go to the library to use computers.

    One thing that it would do is pretty much eliminate the library as a quiet study space. Stacks of books muffle noise; open computer labs allow it to carry. Every conversation, every chair pulled back, every candy wrapper crumpled, would echo through the whole room. You might as well study in a high school cafeteria. Admittedly, I don’t know how much libraries these days are used for study, so that purpose might not be worth preserving.

    • If the homeless are using the library computers for porn, the library needs to change their TOS or start enforcing the one they already have.

      • The American Library Association discourages librarians from enforcing any TOS about porn, or indeed calling the police on dangerous lawbreakers.

  2. No, no, no – to putting books in storage and have patrons ask for them. The joy of any library is the stacks where you can wander freely, perusing the shelves. It’s how so many of us discovered books we didn’t know existed and led us down paths we never expected.
    Plus, there is something about a book in hand that a reader and/or Ipad can’t compete with.
    Yes, I have a reader but I still roam libraries – especially when bookstores are rare where I live.

  3. One might ask what the mission and objective of a public library is, and is that reasonable responsibility for taxpayers to undertake? Why?

    And how has that mission and objective changed over time? Was it once more vital to society than it is today? Is it vital today?

    And in all cases, why are taxpayers paying for the latest James Patterson novel? How does that further the above mentioned mission and objectives?

  4. Anyone who believes that communism is about “sharing” and “egalitarianism” hasn’t studied history.

    As much as I love my local public library, I understand that the only way it thrives is through taxation (which is, in many cases, outright theft) and donations, including the donations of books to their used book sale. I pay quite a bit in local taxes in support of such services, donate my own and other books, and purchase books in the used book sale. Yet I still get a receipt when I check out books that says, “Congratulations! You saved $xx.xx today by using the library!”

    Some people are completely clueless.

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