Thursday, March 3, 2011

Losing libraries (guest post)

This guest post was first published on Monday as a diary on Daily Kos titled The Library is America's last truly socialized institution and you're about to lose it. The author posts as Democrats Ramshield. It's also the first guest post on One Finger Typing.

Many thanks to DR for his thoughts about why libraries matter. His call to oppose a particular and, to this writer and reader, fundamental aspect of the general trend to forfeit hard-won, shared resources in favor of an each-for-himself ethos -- well, it strikes a chord...

(Written by an American expat living in the European Union)

Did you know that the library is America's last truly socialized institution and that everyday you come a bit closer to losing it?! As a male who is a business librarian (that is to say, someone who holds graduate degrees in library science and an MBA degree in marketing), I understand very well that fee for service in America's library systems are creating a class of information have-nots. For some of you this means that your children aren't going to be able to read as well. It also means that as voters in a democracy, you will no longer be as well informed without full library services. As the series, the American dream vs the European dream which I was able to generously publish with the support of the Daily Kos community, we have seen that we cannot depend on the plutocrat-owned radio and television media. Sometimes we have to go to print sources, even international print sources of the variety and scope that you can't possibly afford as an individual to subscribe to them all. Additionally libraries make online databases available to their patrons that allow you with the touch of a button to read international media sources from around the globe. You're in the process of losing all this and a lot more.

Now let's ask why should you be interested in defending America's last truly socialized institution? Well, let's get down to it shall we? So you don't think the library is a completely socialized institution. Well, let's talk about the theory of a library for just one minute, which is: everyone who walks in the door and holds a library card has access to the same services. It doesn't matter if they're the mayor or a homeless person. Everyone in the library is supposed to be treated the same. It is the one place in America where equality doesn't just get lip service. The American Library Association has produced a wonderful statement called the Freedom to Read Statement wherein it is explained that your freedom to read comes directly from the first amendment of the Constitution of the United States. You're about to lose that, and that's pretty darn important.

You can think of the library as a repository of everyone who has ever thought and everyone who has ever written! That's a lot to lose access to.

Now we know that by and large, we are not really in tight budget times at all, but rather that a lot states have run up artificial deficits just like in Wisconsin wherein they give tax breaks to wealthy individuals and corporations and then try to balance the budget on the backs of working class Americans and their unions. So it is that library systems all over America are running out of money and this poses the danger of tearing the guts out of the last truly socialized institution in America, where everyone is supposed to be equal. Losing libraries threatens to create a division in the population between the information haves and have-nots.

L.A. Weekly - L.A.'s Library Measure L

There's lots of hidden City Hall fat to fuel the 73 shuttered libraries
By Patrick Range McDonald and Mars Melnicoff Thursday, Feb 24 2011

Last summer, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council achieved a grim milestone. With little discussion, the mayor and 10 of the 15 council members approved unprecedented, punishing library cuts that made L.A. the only significant U.S. municipality, aside from the dying city of Detroit, to shutter its entire public library system two days a week. At the Cypress Park Branch Library in northeast L.A., children once streamed in on Mondays to work on computers many families can't afford at home, while other students read and avoided the violent Avenues gang after school. Now, with Sundays and Mondays dark and his staff cut far back, librarian Patrick Xavier says, "It's a struggle."


Literacy among adults and children in the information age is the linchpin to education, retraining and full employment. No institution in America does more to support literacy than your friendly neighborhood library. I'm not just talking about story hour and reading programs for children, but serious efforts to support young adults' and working adults' literacy and continued education. Let's understand that there is a strong correlation between literacy rates and crime. That is to say, most people in America -- including over 2 million of them who are in jails and prisons -- traditionally suffer from low literacy rates. Why is it that America can find plenty of money for prisons but has problems finding money for libraries? All of this is to say nothing of the staggering loss of human potential of the American prison population. In fact we have about as many people in prison as we do have in the military. Oh yes, and did you know that most American military manuals are written at the 9th grade reading level? Did you also know that there are millions of Americans today who cannot read this diary because they are functionally illiterate? Now we start to understand what it is that America is losing when it is losing the last truly socialized institution in America.

Fee for service

There is a trend in American librarianship called "fee for service." That is to say that services are made available only to those library patrons that can pay for them. This trend has been growing in recent years and now it's threatening to become an American national epidemic. Some people will always argue that there always will be some basic library services available without fees, but the issue is the cost to American society of a less well-read public. What is the cost to American society of not fully supporting our children's literacy? And then there's the issue of quality of life and the joy of reading, which can also be diminished by fee for service in public libraries.

Yet another alarming development is the privatization of libraries. This is another means of creating a class of information have-nots. Here's a link to the American Libraries Association information page on that issue. Link:

Information retrieval

Some people believe that they can find everything they need on the internet, and therefore don't want to support libraries anymore. The simple fact is this is not true, because there is too much irrelevant information on the internet. In library jargon, we say what people get from the internet is high volume retrieval with low pertinence. In fact what we want is low volume with high pertinence. That is to say, you want a small, manageable amount of information that is relevant to your information needs ... and that's why you need professional library collection development working for you, both behind the scenes and at the reference desk. The more information that becomes available in the bibliographic universe, the more we need the professional information management of librarians to help us navigate the information maze. We don't want to create a system where only the affluent, on a fee for service basis, can afford to have the librarian assisting their information retrieval needs through database searches, reader guidance, and support for children and adult literacy. The library must continue to be the social leveling institution that it has always been where everyone has equal access to have their information needs met. Library collections must continue to serve the full populations of communities (including non-English speakers) through collection development policies, rather than have library collections and services developed around the needs of a few affluent library patrons who are able to pay into a fee for service structure.

This diary encourages you to support your local library by writing a letter to the editor today and telling them why it is that you support libraries, that you support literacy and that you support intellectual freedom for both authors and readers. Also please consider joining your friends of the libraries group. We need everyone's help to defend the last fully socialized institution in America ... which is your local library.

Thank you for your support of American libraries.

(Finally it should be noted that the famous philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who in the minds of many was a noted socialist set up libraries all over America.)

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Speed dating for the bookish
Six things about e-books
Book clubs in a box from the public library

[Thanks to Wally Gobetz for his photo of the NYPL on Fifth Ave in New York.]

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