Saturday, September 03, 2005

Knowledge for Sale
Are America's public libraries on the verge of losing their way?
—By Chris Dodge, Utne magazine
July / August 2005 Issue

Before joining the Utne staff in 1999, Chris Dodge worked for 19 years in a suburban Minneapolis library system, helping the activist librarian Sandy Berman reinvent the art of cataloging. Long before search engines swept the Web, Berman and his team created a network for searching the system with plain words and phrases, not arcane jargon. Today, that innovative system has been dismantled -- a symbol, Dodge argues, of wider trends that are transforming public libraries across the country. Are we on the verge of losing a cultural treasure? Dodge finds reason for both concern and hope. -- The Editors

Imagine a social space that's designed for individual enlightenment, a "people's university" where all can read and learn. A haven from commerce where everyone can conduct research or enjoy the arts. A place for children to escape their family bonds just long enough to glimpse a broader world. A home away from home for those curious about ideas and passionate about knowledge.

Such is the American public library at its best. And who doesn't love a library, at least in concept? In a land where private ownership is the rule, libraries lend items and offer help for free. Historically, they've provided things to be shared, not consumed and thrown away. Good libraries are deeply conservative in that they guard and archive the culture's diverse wisdom and beauty, its vast oddities and amusements. But they're also radical bastions of mutual aid. In a "knowledge economy" where information carries an ever-steeper price, where the rich get wealthier and the poor have less, libraries are one of the few ways still available for many to educate themselves -- ideally, an American right.

By some measures, these wellsprings of the democratic spirit have never been more popular. According to the American Library Association (ALA), public library visits have risen from 500 million in 1990 to about 1.2 billion a year. Reference librarians now answer more than 7 million questions a week. And as the ALA likes to note, there are more public libraries in the United States -- 16,421, counting all branches -- than there are McDonald's restaurants.

But lurking in that comparison is a hint that all is not well with libraries. In fact, the same forces that have turned the United States into a fast-food nation could soon drive the traditional American library out of existence. In a society where everyone's basic needs for health care, housing, education, clean air and water, meaningful work, creative expression, and open space are not met, the historical model of the public library, open to all, is under siege. Critics say it's a crisis that mirrors a larger one rooted in the failures of capitalism and perhaps democracy itself.

Though tax-supported public libraries first appeared in the United States in the mid-19th century, their spread began decades later, thanks to industrial magnate Andrew Carnegie. After working his way from bobbin boy at a textile mill to owner of the world's largest steel company, Carnegie saw libraries as a way to help self-motivated individuals benefit society by bettering themselves. For 30 years following 1886, his vast wealth funded the building of nearly 1,700 libraries in more than 1,400 American cities and towns. To get a Carnegie grant, a community first had to show the need for a library, provide a site, and agree to support the library with annual taxes totaling 10 percent of the grant.

Libraries still do what they did in Carnegie's day, at least in principle. In the words of ALA president Michael Gorman, their mission is "to select, acquire, give access to, and preserve the records of human civilization and to provide instruction and assistance in the use of those records." In the view of scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of The Anarchist in the Library (Basic Books, 2004), "a library is a temple to the antielitist notion that knowledge should be cheap if not free." How many inventors, artists, farmers, healers, bus drivers, teachers, and writers have been nurtured in public libraries, made important discoveries there, or simply survived, thanks to these welcoming spaces? More important, how many will in the future?

The question arises because libraries have entered an era of change, evidenced most dramatically by widespread cutbacks and closings. In Salinas, California, birthplace of John Steinbeck, a funding shortfall nearly closed the city's three libraries this spring, including the branches named after the writer and the labor activist Cesar Chavez. After a national outcry, a fund-raising campaign kept the libraries open at a reduced level of service. Earlier this year, Philadelphia's library director ordered 20 of 49 branches turned into so-called "express libraries" that would be open only in the afternoons and be staffed by nonlibrarians, a move accompanied by layoffs. Responding to the librarians' union, a judge stopped the partially completed process at least until July 1. Other such crises are springing up from coast to coast.

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