America’s Public Libraries: A Democratizing, Positive Product of our Communities

by |October 29, 2018

I admit that with pipe bombs delivered all over my home city, a murderous anti-Semitic lunatic rampaging in Pittsburgh, and a president who complains that terrorism is a distraction from his campaign message, I spent the weekend looking for something positive to think about and reflect on. It was difficult, because as an American Jew I took the attack in Pittsburgh personally. I am deeply and profoundly saddened and horrified by the attack on an American place of worship on what should have been a peaceful Shabbos morning.

Perhaps I was thinking of quiet places of reflection and open community spaces; perhaps it was the Pittsburgh connection to Andrew Carnegie and his pathbreaking philanthropy to libraries. I don’t know why, but I started to think about libraries. In my neighborhood, it doesn’t take long to find one. There are a couple of branches of the New York Public Library within a mile of my apartment. And I remembered the old Mill Basin Branch of the library around the corner from my childhood home in Brooklyn. While that branch has since moved from Avenue T to Ralph Avenue, when I was growing up, I didn’t even need to cross a street to find a book and sit in its quiet spaces. It was a small library, but it was very special. Sometimes, a few of us would climb on the bus and ride down Flatbush Avenue to explore what we thought of as the biggest library in the world, the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza. I guess country kids explore the woods and city kids explore the stacks in some libraries. I admit that in the competition for my time, the library didn’t always win over stickball and touch football, but it did particularly well when the weather was crummy. But rain or shine, all over America libraries provide books, internet access, and free passage across the digital divide. They are precious, if sometimes vulnerable, local resources.

Libraries, like all government-funded institutions, are facing challenges during this anti-government era, but because they provide a tangible and visible service, they seem to be holding their own. Earlier this year the Trump Administration sought to eliminate the relatively small amount of federal funding provided to libraries, but Congress rejected those cuts. As Kevin Maher of the American Library Association reported:

“Late on September 13 the House and Senate Appropriations Committees released a conference committee report on fiscal year 2019 funding for programs under the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee—which controls spending levels for many federal library programs… The news is good: The conference committee has recommended increasing funding levels for many programs.”

According to the Humanities Indicator Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, over 80% of U.S. library revenues come from local sources, with federal and state funding totaling less than 10% each. Library use and funding grew during the period from1995-2009, but both use and funding fell victim to the Great Recession of 2008. Library funding varies widely by state, according to the Humanities Indicator Project. It ranges from a high of $82 per capita in the District of Columbia to a low of $16 per capita in Mississippi.

In Long Beach, New York, the small city that I spend much of my summer in, the library budget is smaller than the school budget, but receives more votes from local citizens. According to Bridget Downes of the Long Island Herald, this past year the school budget of $140 million passed by a vote of 1,954 to 1,047 while the library budget of $3.5 million passed by a vote of 2,188 to 779. The library in Long Beach is packed with free events, computers, and movies and books for loan. It is always a busy, lively center of community life, a phenomenon that seems increasingly common in communities across America.

In James and Deborah Fallows’, Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America, local libraries were often one of their first stops when exploring small American towns and cities. Writing about their observations in the Atlantic this past May, James Fallows observed:

“Libraries might seem fated to become the civic counterparts of yesteryear’s Borders or Barnes & Noble, but in nearly every city we visited they were newly prominent. By most measures of use—classes and programs offered, daily attendance, visits to the website, everything except calls to reference librarians for the research people can now do on Google—libraries are becoming more rather than less popular and central to civic life. The soft measures of impact are powerful: Walk into a random public library, and you’ll see waiting lines for computers, librarians helping with job searches or other practical concerns, desk space for young entrepreneurs. According to a recent Pew survey, Millennials use libraries more than their Gen X or Boomer elders do.”

Libraries are critical resources in our service-oriented, brain-based economy. They fit well into the Millennials’ movement toward a “sharing economy”. In a digital age, using scarce apartment space for a book collection seems to make less sense than borrowing books and returning them after you read them. Last week I wrote about the need for lifelong learning for survival in the modern economy.  Libraries are places where entry to learning resources is free and open to all. In a society where income inequality is growing, free resources like schools, parks and libraries continue to grow in importance. There are no rope lines or VIP lounges at public libraries. Tourists, citizens, and even illegal immigrants are allowed to enter and use the resources on offer. In their book, the Fallows tell a story about a library making sure their WiFi signal was strong enough that people could use the internet on the library’s steps even when the facility was closed.

And libraries are not passive resources. They are staffed by professional librarians. If you sit in a library, as I did recently, and listen to the librarian answer questions and provide suggestions, you may come to appreciate the important role they play in putting the library’s resources to use. You also come to appreciate the role that libraries play as a gateway to the wider world that many of us take for granted.

Literacy, information and knowledge are prerequisites to participation in a work world where manual labor is increasingly replaced by machines. Religious institutions, schools, community organizations and libraries all have a critical role to play in ensuring that people can earn entry to that world. We all have a vested interest in democratizing participation. A permanent underclass is not simply unethical and unjust, it is a breeding ground for crime and anti-social behavior.

As I mourn the dead worshippers in Pittsburgh and the sickness of an American political system that insists on allowing people to legally possess automatic weapons, I refuse to be defined by the dysfunction that has infected our politics. There is evil in the world and we need to protect ourselves, our families and our communities from that evil. But there is far more good in the world than evil, from first responders racing to the sounds of gunfire to everyday librarians helping a child find information for a term paper. In American neighborhoods we help each other and public service is an expected norm. America is a nation of immigrants and our diversity is a great strength. We always do better when we build bridges instead of walls, when we build libraries and schools instead of prisons. America’s public libraries are a democratizing, positive product of our communities. I find the search for a positive symbol or message of particular importance right now.

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