Why The Public Library Should Always Remain Free

My voice is only one of hundreds who have already chimed in about this ridiculous piece of flame bait from The Atlantic on charging public library users a per item borrowing fee.  I’m sure that someone has already said what I’m going to say, probably in the epic comments thread, but I’m going to say it anyway.

Barry Greenfield’s piece suffers from one fundamental flaw: Capitalism.  Public Libraries, as all public institutions, are inherently experiments in Socialism.  We utilize public funds, to provide a resource that is unavailable to those who do not have the means to procure them, i.e. knowledge, education and culture via our shared literary heritage (and I include film and music in that definition of “literary”). Capitalizing on that access, even in the smallest way, is a barrier to access that should never be tolerated.

The philanthropic push by Andrew Carnegie was about creating opportunity for those who, like himself, lacked the ability to live the American Dream of social mobility.  The dream of the public library was, and still is, to provide public access to those things that provide the means to achieve social mobility.  Carnegie understood that to get ahead, one needed to be educated.  But access to schools and universities was extremely limited, and mostly reserved for an already wealthy elite, perpetuating a ruling class.  The main factor in this class divide was monetary.  Those who cannot afford to purchase books, cannot read them. The creation of the Free Public Library broke the monopoly on education for the American elite, and allowed those born into lower classes the ability to learn beyond their raising and the circumstances of their birth.   The Free Public Library still does this today, and here’s how.

Early Literacy

The area that the public library is most known for, is also the most crucial to the development of our society’s future.  The public library offers programs for parents and caregivers of very young children that expose them to human contact, expanding the language that they hear, and engaging them in complex social environments that prepare them to be ready to read and interact in a pre-K and Kindergarten school environment.  Children from birth to age two are developing the complex array of brain synapses that will enable them to learn when the are older, and research has shown that children who are engaged with books in a positive way at an early age become better readers, and ultimately better learners when in school.  Children between the ages of 3-5 are engaged in amassing a large amount of vocabulary so that when they encounter written words for the first time that they will be able to recognize them, because they will have heard them before.  Lap Time programs for infants and toddlers and Story Time programs for pre-school age children are exactly the right environment to build those skills. If you’re curious about the research check out Saroj Ghoting’s website on early literacy for children.

But beyond those single hours per week, parents and caregivers need to have access to the books that will engage their children.  The average picture book costs between $12.00 and $17.00.  No parent on their own would be able to provide the exposure to the wide variety of material needed to give their child an exceptionally deep vocabulary.  Most parents and caregivers will check out about 15 books per week from the public library.  That amount in sales would have cost them between $180.00 to $255.00.  Some of the more affluent parents I know are already shelling out thousands in day care.  There is no way they could afford to buy those books.  And children from families living in poverty can’t even come close to making up that difference.  To ask a parent to spend $10.00 a week in library books is to ask them if they are willing to make another sacrifice they can’t afford.  This will put their children at yet another disadvantage, this one a fundamentally developmental challenge.

Access to Educational Resources

School libraries around the country are being slashed as “budget drainers” (like music and art before them) and school librarians are being interrogated about their contribution to the educational process.  As more and more schools lose access to educational material, public libraries are pulling up the slack.  While we can’t provide an entire classroom with a set of textbooks, we can provide access to educational databases that students can use to supplement what few resources can be provided by their school.  These resources can also help educators who need to prepare their students to be ready to do online research and evaluate resources so that they are ready for college entrance exams and college itself.  The other important thing the public library does is provide low-filtered internet access to children.  Most public schools run software that will block legitimately invaluable websites like Wikipedia and Google, because of the potential for children to access harmful information.  The Public Library provides a much more open environment where children can explore the complexity of the internet with their parents, the librarian, their friends and on their own.  This gives them a richer media environment than any school can provide or pay for, and we provide this for free.

Adult Literacy

Beyond children, America is still grappling with adult populations who are functionally illiterate.  And in today’s text heavy, web centric society, illiteracy is even more detrimental than ever.  Adults who cannot read cannot apply for numerous government assistance programs, because most all of them are migrating online.  One of the most common uses of public computers is applying for jobs (many of them entry level), and filing for unemployment.  But public libraries have long been a home for adult literacy programs, both for those who have never learned to read and for those non-native speakers of English who need to learn the language to function in our society.  Paying for this kind of service is often times impossible, not to mention demoralizing to a person who already experiences shame for his/her problem.

Adult Basic Education

Another of the more common services we offer are adult basic education classes to help people pass the GED.  High School dropout rates are slowly decreasing, but still a major problem, especially among minority students.  Those who do not have a high school diploma or GED are at extreme economic disadvantage.  There is an ever widening salary gulf between those who have a high school diploma and those who have a Bachelor’s degree, and with degree inflation on the rise due to the extremities of the economy having a high school diploma or GED becomes more and more critical in order to get to the next step, college.  Public libraries have long been places for people to get access to the resources they need to educate themselves to pass the GED.  Good GED test prep books can cost between $20.00 and $30.00.  Not to mention special practice booklets to help students pass difficult parts of the exam.  Not only do we provide the resources, but many public libraries also provide courses to help students pass the GED as well.

Access to Technology

Just say “digital divide” and it feels like we’re back in the 90’s.  But the reality is that the digital divide is still as real and strong as ever.  With broadband costs on the rise and computer costs still a hurdle for many families, the internet may seem like a luxury item.  But as mentioned before, there are a host of reasons why people need to use the internet and they are only increasing.  One of the most common requests I have dealt with at the information desk has been to help an adult, who has never been online ever, fill out a job application on a web form.  And these jobs are not for like executive administrative assistant or CIO at a Fortune 500 company.  I’m talking about jobs for food service, grocery clerks, and janitors.  The world has so fundamentally changed that even the lowest paid position at a company requires at least a rudimentary level of tech savvy.  You have to have an email address, an electronic copy of a resume, and the skill to navigate numerous websites with radically different and unique forms.   Not to mention the tenacity to come and check your email on a daily basis to see if you’ve gotten a hit on a job lead.  Without this skill, people remain unemployed, and the U.S. economy keeps going down.

Public Meeting Spaces

One of the other extraordinarily valuable assets the public library offers is empty space for meetings. I cannot begin to tell you how important this is.  Meetings at the library have provided access to non-profits and start-up businesses to gather collaborators and investors, brought tutors to students, helped people to engage in civil debate and political organizing, space to adequately train volunteers, and more.  Many of these places need a space that they can access for free so they can get the leg up they need to help develop our society at a grassroots level.  Some public libraries charge for this, but many do not, again, because money is a barrier to access, stifling development and change.

Cultural Exploration

We live in a global society.  Anyone with half a mind to watch the nightly news knows that.  But not everyone is exposed to what it means to be a part of a global society.  Public Libraries provide access to language learning materials, books, music and films from other parts of the world, and programming that exposes people to cultures that they never would have known existed.  From indigenous American traditions to countries on the opposite side of the world.  People can delve into nearly any culture of the world, and via the internet, engage with that culture as well.  Most people today are more likely to know about the ripple effects of the U.S. housing bubble or the Greek economic collapse than they were just 20 years ago.  Access to the internet has made that possible.  Again, a service we provide for free.  As Seth Godin commented about a week ago some people only come to the library to borrow videos.  And that is absolutely true.  But the videos we offer range far and wide; from Madea Goes to Jail to Götterdämmerung to the entire set of Ken Burns’ The Civil War.  We reserve no judgment on what people choose to watch, just as we reserve no judgment on what they choose to read.  But some offerings can never be captured as a book, and must be experienced.  Providing access to cultural treasures in music and film is just as relevant as learning how to read.

I could go on and on and on about how bad of an idea this $.50 fee is, but you get the picture.  The fact of the matter is that public libraries are free and public for a reason; because our society believes that social mobility is gained by access to education, and that barriers to access keep our population impoverished.  The free public library is the only resource available to our residents that can provide this.  We pay for it via our taxes because we believe in its mission to help those who cannot afford to help themselves.  We believe that when we have a well educated, self-motivated, and more affluent society, everyone wins.  There are many things that should never be monetized, and the free public library is one of them.

Yes it’s Socialist, and no, that’s not a bad word.

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The New Information Literacy

As a public librarian I am often in the position to help newcomers to using computers for the very first time.  Many of them have never sat in front of a computer before, have no idea how a mouse works, or even rudimentary typing skills.  Given the outrageously bad literacy rates in the District, the fact that they have never used a computer before seems unsurprising.  But now nearly everything is online, and people are constantly being confronted with the necessity of information literacy.  Even the lowest paying cleaning jobs and cashiers are required to submit resumes and applications online.  Vast amounts of government services require that their recipients file their claims online.  750 million people are on Facebook.  That’s a big chunk of the entire planet.  To not be connected online today is to be cut off the world.

But the unconnected users are only a fraction of information literacy needs in the public library.  There is a spectrum of information literacy needs that needs to be met by the public librarian and the skill set required to meet those needs is evolving and changing as we speak.  The spectrum, as I see it, runs from zero connectivity to immersed.  Here’s a little graphic.

Let’s talk about these users, because these are the people we work with every day and their needs are different.

Newbie

This is the person who has no knowledge of computer skills whatsoever.  They have, through the nature of our information economy, finally been confronted with learning new technology and they are starting from zero.  This is the person to whom you need to teach how to use the mouse, what email is and how it works, and the basics of using an internet browser.  These are the people to whom most of the introductory computer classes in libraries are geared.  Public Libraries are the necessary waystation in learning how to become a computer user to accomplish the few things that they need to get that one step forward.  These are also in many respects the most challenging patrons, because they have no background the amount of material required to get them started can be overwhelming.

Light User

This is the individual who has mastered the fundamentals of using the physical parts of the computer but for whom understanding some of the complexities of software and web functions is still confusing.  This is the user from whom we get questions about how to properly space things in MS Word, how to attach something to an email, why Outlook doesn’t work when they try to auto-email a document, why a web page freezes up on them, etc.  These users need someone with a deeper understanding of the functionality of the software they’re using and how web pages function.

Networked

These users have gotten to the point that they know how to function online, and they are using social media to connect to their friends, family and coworkers.  They are mostly self-reliant, but they have begun to explore new technologies and software to integrate into their social experience.  They’re are getting to the point that they are creating original content online, but slowly.  These are the users who want to learn how to create and edit digital photos and possibly videos for their Facebook, Google+, Twitter and YouTube personae. Here the librarian serves as a consultant regarding the software used to create original content.

Gadgeteer

The gadgeteer is the user who has acquired a new device (digital camera, smart phone, iPod, ebook reader) and either a) has no idea how to use it or b) is trying to engage in some kind of file transfer maneuver that they cannot navigate.  Those are really the only two scenarios I have seen take place in the library, though I’m sure there are more.  The unsure new user may bring their device to the librarian to help demonstrate to them how to use the device itself or an application on the device.  The file transfer user just want to desperately figure out how to migrate data from point a to point b, and the librarian’s role is to educate the user in the file structure system underlying their devices. The gadgeteer may also fall at earlier points in the spectrum, but it is usually seen (in my experience) when they have at least mastered the light user phase.

Designer

This is the user who has grown to become savvy with social media and often times devices, and they are looking to build a bigger presence for themselves online.  These are the users who are exploring creating original public content on a website, blog, photo site, video site.  They are often self-reliant because they have learned to navigate the internet and they understand internet content well enough that they are ready to become content creators themselves. These are the people who want to learn about content management systems, search engine optimization, using social media for marketing, and how to power-use web technologies.

Programmer

This is the person who wants to begin tinkering with electronics to make something physical, and not just digital creation.  These are the hackers who make things with arduinos and LEDs for fun.  They are the makers who want to play with 3-D printers and CAD programs.  These users are going to want to learn programming languages so that they can make smart phone apps or design new electronics.  They are the ones who want to make the next big thing, or at least the next cool thing.

Traditional library service has been able to help people up to the gadgeteer phase.  When we get into complex issues of web design and programming, these often fall far outside of the body of knowledge of the average librarian.  Though we don’t see much in the way of reference questions from these users now, we may begin seeing this sooner than any of us would think.  One of the speakers at the TEDxLibrariansTO conference, Eric Boyd, spoke about programming as a literacy skill and the hope for libraries to incorporate hacker spaces into their domain.  I wholly agree with this sentiment.

When I was in library school (10 years ago) Information Literacy was about navigating the user interface and how to verify and compare information on the internet.  We just basically changed the words “bibliographic instruction” to something else.  Today’s information literacy is much deeper than that.  It’s about understanding the complex interconnections between software and hardware; people’s interaction engagement with content (as user and creator); the sociology, politics and ethics of software; and right down to the fundamental building blocks of understanding how software operates so that you can see why it does what it does as well as what it does to us.  The scope of what a librarian needs to know has grown, and we need to have a very real conversation about that.  Does every librarian need to be a programmer?  No.  But we can’t remain ignorant of programming and electronics, or we become information illiterate ourselves.