Wednesday, February 3, 2016
There are few aspects of American life that are truly and inarguably democratic. The ability to cast a ballot and directly elect representatives--an act held up as the embodiment of democratic ideals, often by those very same representatives--is available only to a select portion of the population based on age, citizenship, criminal record and, in states that have adopted voter ID laws, the ability to pay for and receive a wholly unnecessary form of identification. Similarly, the ability of anyone--again, of a certain age, citizenship, and criminal record--to run for and hold public office has been undermined in recent years by the advent of Citizens United, the unencumbered growth of super-PACs, and the gerrymandering of districts into those that are "safe" for incumbent politicians and their respective political parties.* What's more, the various freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights, a document that by its very nature and origins should make our nation unique in its democratic strength, are often undermined by the ideological impulses of those tasked with interpreting them--namely, the nine members of the Supreme Court, as well as the thousands of judges occupying state and federal benches. In every respect, we are a country that cherishes its freedoms, often vocally and in contrast to other nations, while simultaneously refusing to understand just how limited those freedoms are.
In fact, the two most truly democratic institutions in the United States are, with few exceptions, free and accessible to everyone. And yet they are so omnipresent in our lives that most Americans take them for granted, often while using them. The first is our parks system. From small municipal lots that encompass little more than a city block to national antiquities that stretch for hundreds of thousands of protected acres, American parks are open to anyone at any time of year, regardless of age, ethnicity, religious practices, wealth, citizenship, or criminal record. When you hike in the shadow of the Half Dome in Yosemite, peer over the edge of the Grand Canyon, watch the sun rise over the Great Smoky Mountains, or marvel at the frozen cliffs and caves of the Apostle Islands in winter, you may being doing so beside an immigrant from Central America, a Mormon preacher, a five-year-old child, a great-grandmother, a father on food stamps, or the CEO of a large company. American parks are a great equalizer in American life, requiring nothing of its visitors except a desire to see nature as it should be.
The other is the public library, an idea older than the nation itself, and one that was nurtured by many of the Founding Fathers, who believed it integral to the strength of a free and prosperous nation.** Today, there are more than 17,000 public libraries available throughout the country, and they grant each and every visitor access to the very same resources, regardless of background or identity. They are fixtures in their communities, often providing resources to those who would otherwise go without.
Over the past decade, however, the question has been raised as to what role the public library should play in the era of ebooks, digital subscriptions, and online databases...or whether it can even adapt at all. (The reference librarian, for example, now competes against search engines and apps, the card catalog and shelves of reference materials no match for the power of a few bytes of data delivered at the press of a button.) If people can access these resources at home (the argument goes), what is the purpose of preserving such large and expensive buildings? Why devote so much of our tax dollars to keeping alive an institution that, as storied as it may be, seems incapable of keeping up with changes in our culture and society...an institution that is being rapidly supplanted by phones and computers?
The problem with these questions is twofold. First, the assumption that a rise in digital content correlates to a drop in library patronage is not supported by the facts. In 2009, for example, American public libraries "welcomed more than 1.59 billion visitors...and lent books 2.4 billion times--more than 8 times for each citizen." And while public libraries have seen a decrease in the number of patrons who walk through their doors over the last few decades, those who decry their downfall are doing so prematurely: as the numbers attest, American public libraries are never empty of people.
Secondly, these arguments assume that digitized content is just as readily accessible to Americans as the public library, when in fact that is also not the case. A large swathe of the population doesn't have easy access to the internet in their own homes, including the elderly, the unemployed, and those living in impoverished neighborhoods. To them, public libraries address needs that cannot be met. As the Pew Research Center noted last year, library patrons do more than just browse books or surf the internet; they also research information about health care, search for jobs, study for work or school, attend trainings, go to class, and give their children access to books and reading groups--a major benefit to childhood literacy, especially in areas where daycare and summer school programs are unavailable or unaffordable.
And how much does this cost each American taxpayer? According to the research, forty-two dollars. In contrast, a 2012 report found that the average American household spent more than $800 on soft drinks. There are other numbers that could be cited, of course, but none of them in any way diminishes the reality that this institution is entirely affordable.
What is to be done, then, about the public library? It provides necessary services to communities across the country, but it's status as a public institution means it is constantly in need of money. In Patience and Fortitude, Scott Sherman examines one of the largest library systems in the nation, the New York City Public Library (NYPL), and its long, controversial struggle with declining patronage, as well as its financial setbacks, the changing needs of its surrounding neighborhoods, and the unique role it has played as a repository for one-of-a-kind historical documents and research materials. The system, which is overseen by both a director and board of trustees, was scheduled to undergo major changes to a handful of its locations, including the magisterial 42nd Street building, where more than three millions books were housed.*** The redesign called for stacks to be gutted, books to be warehoused across state lines, buildings to be razed and rebuilt--in one case, as the first floor of a luxury apartment building--and the system's focus to shift from library services to technology, despite the fact that millions of patrons still used the libraries for basic research. The plan also required hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money, some of which would be spent on a design by architect Norman Foster--money that, as Sherman notes, could have been better spent paying for upgrades to existing locations. (In one of the book's most startling scenes, the NYPL system's director is shown an upstairs room in one of these locations. Originally intended for the library's live-in custodian, the large room has remained in the same cobwebbed state for decades--space that could easily be refurbished for use by the staff and patrons, and at very little cost. The director, already aware of this extra space, is unmoved by the idea, and the rooms remain unused.)
Sherman portrays the director and trustees as not only oblivious to the services provided by the city's public libraries--their outreach to immigrants, for example, or their legacy of preserving historical documents for writers and researchers, many of whom would later become famous and use their status to advocate against the proposed changes--but also blinded by greed. They view the system as a potential business--that is, as a way to raise money rather than as a service to the public. Often, when discussing the planned changes, they speak in terms of land value, the growing real estate market, and non-performing assets...terms that would otherwise be incongruous in a discussion about sustaining public libraries. When pressed about their true intentions, the trustees shield themselves behind privacy laws that govern their meetings--a deep irony considering the fact that libraries embody transparency, openness, and the unrestrained sharing of knowledge. (In fact, almost all of those involved in the planned changes declined to speak with Sherman, or even acknowledge his interview requests.)
This one fight, seemingly consigned to a single system, represents the struggle libraries have faced for years: meeting the needs of their community while straining under the directives of those who rarely if ever set foot inside. Most American libraries are overseen by boards who have the institution's best interests at heart; unfortunately, most library funding comes not from boards or patrons but politicians, who decide how much revenue will be designated for public libraries in any given year. As Sherman argues, those who set out to purposely defund libraries do so in the hopes of making information less available to the public, and a less-informed public is one that is less politically engaged and easier to manipulate. (The prevalence of the internet assuages some of this; unfortunately, as noted above, those who suffer the worst from ideological budget cuts--the poor and elderly, students, and those living in ignored neighborhoods--are also the least likely to have easy access to the internet.)
We live in an era in which the phrase "government spending" is used with disdain, often by the very same men and women who belong to the government or wish to hold its highest office. They decry the use of taxpayer money on "entitlement programs" they deem ineffective, undemocratic, and wasteful. What they refuse to acknowledge or understand, however, is that the purpose behind taxes is to provide everyone with the same rights, services, and opportunities, regardless of who they are or where they live. This includes the right to be safe and secure in your own home, the opportunity to attend school and travel safely on well-maintained roads, protections against unexpected illnesses, economic downturns, disability, hunger, and so on. It also includes the ability to walk into a building and learn anything you want by simply picking up a book, paging through a magazine, or logging onto a computer. Certain aspects of our society require us to give up some of our money without expecting any in return; instead, we're given something else, something far more valuable than the coins in our pocket, and that is certainly worth keeping around for as long as we can.
*Granted, the history of elections in the United States is one fraught with continual problems, including rampant disenfranchisement, back-room dealmaking, the impenetrable control of party bosses, the electoral college, and so on. That being said, until the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United, the presidential elections of the previous four decades can reasonably be seen as the closest we've come to purely democratic elections...though they were still far from ideal.
**Perhaps the greatest example of this is Thomas Jefferson's 1815 sale of his entire private library, undoubtedly the greatest in any colony, to the young nation. Once purchased, the thousands of volumes in his collection became a precursor to the Library of Congress, which today holds almost 24 million books.
***I say "were" rather than "are" because the books were eventually moved to a warehouse in New Jersey, where they remain to this day.