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.

What Moves Us

…for if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without.

— from The Charge of the Goddess by Doreen Valiente; adapted by Starhawk via Reclaiming

There are numerous reasons why I read Seth Godin’s blog, but the primary one is for resonance.  I will often find in his work something that harmonizes with a deep understanding of a personally held belief.  In today’s case it’s about motivation.  As I was scrolling through his posts this morning his recent critique of external vs. internal motivating factors hit that harmonic.

He begins by talking about the external motivating factors such as reward and punishment from superiors as the model influenced by the industrial age.  But in today’s knowledge economy external motivation is less useful.

In fact, the world is more and more aligned in favor of those who find motivation inside, who would do what they do even if it wasn’t their job.

While not explicitly stating so this dichotomy is one that flows from the theory of the work ethic.  Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic being the external motivating factor, and Pekka Himanen’s Hacker Ethic being the internal motivating factor.  Why do we do the work that we do, and what keeps us coming back to do this work?  What would make someone want to continue doing this work even if it wasn’t their job?

As goes the economy so goes public services, and libraries are often one of the things that politicians always consider cutting.  Perhaps they see it as a luxury expense, perhaps it’s the tough call that everyone has to take a cut. Whatever their motivations for reducing budgets, it’s happening, and it’s been happening with more and more frequency.  Librarians are being laid off and libraries are being closed all over the country.

But librarians haven’t stopped working.  Many of them, the highly dedicated, internally motivated ones turn right around and begin volunteering at the library instead.  They can’t let go, and they won’t let the community go underserved just because they lost their job. There are many times I have turned to a colleague or a patron and said that even if there was no money in this work for me that I would do it out of the goodness of my heart.  I have a secret post-apocalyptic contingency plan of continuing to run the library and sharing information with people on how to grow food and blacksmith based on the materials in the collection alone.

Why does librarianship inspire this kind of enthusiasm?  I think there’s something very deeply ingrained in the internally motivated librarian that goes beyond “job” or “career” and moves into the realm of “vocation” and “calling.”  One of the books that really captured that was Nancy Maxwell’s Sacred Stacks.  Nancy’s premise is that librarianship has a similar effect on individuals as ministry and priesthood, and that there are roles that we play within the profession that approximate the types of experiences associated with clergy.  But the primary element in this equation really is the feeling of “the call.”  That librarians are people with a calling, who come to being a librarian because they have a passion for this type of service work.

True, not every library or library staff member is filled with the spirit of library science.  There are those who never had that, for whom this is just a job.  There are those who had it and lost it, for various reasons, who have died inside and retired in place.  There are those who had it beaten out of them from poor management.  And there are those who have just plateaued and figure that their work is “just good enough and no thank you I’m not interested in anything else.”

But then there are those who have it, who get it, and who strive to make this an even more wonderful and vibrant place.  Who drag themselves to the office and push through the work even when they should be resting.  They come in on off days to prep for programs.  They read and write blogs in their spare time.  They are constantly talking, dreaming, visioning and living for the next day to come so they can jump back in.  These are the people we need in libraries; the passionate ones, the dreamers, the experimenters, the revolutionaries, the ones who will go the extra mile and beyond.

In the Atlantic Lane Wallace has a wonderful piece about why, even in the toughest times, you should follow your passion and never compromise.   I couldn’t agree more.  My post-undergraduate life had me temping and then getting hired on by Chiquita Banana to do export paperwork for two years.  I lost my soul in that job and only when I went to library school did I feel like I reclaimed my sense of self.  After that experience working against my passion I swore I would never do that to myself again.  The emotional and psychological cost was too high.

When I got out of grad school the job search for me took about four months from graduation to actually being hired as a librarian.  Sadly, this is somewhat normal.  But I had no unemployment checks to draw, since I was a college student.  I had no job, and refused to take one unless it was in my field.  This led to me foraging for fruit in Seattle, losing my apartment, couchsurfing at my friend Ken’s place and having my mother pay my cell phone bill so that I could wait expectantly for that call.  There was a time somewhere in that bleary period of jobless/homelessness that I considered going back to shipping.  But I said no, held out, and eventually I got the call.  It was my passion for the profession that kept me believing, and in the end it’s what earned me a position in federal service.

The world would be a very different place if we followed our hearts and not our paychecks.

I think I like that world more.