As one who has spent most of his life working in academia, I am, of course, used to the idea of libraries being available for me to consult and I have used them with some frequency in the course of my work. But, academic libraries are, primarily, intended to help support research and learning for those on the faculty and their students. I am aware of the fact that many academic libraries do also include sections of popular literature (both fiction and not), periodicals (academic and not), etc., but their purpose is to serve a fairly specific cliental and they are, generally, not open to the public at large, although some do allow the general public reading (not “checkout”) access. What struck me is that there is a difference between having access to an academic library and having access to a public one. I think this distinction is important and deserves to be celebrated.
According to Wikipedia:
“A public library is a library that is accessible by the general public and is generally funded from public sources, such as taxes. It is operated by librarians and library paraprofessionals, who are also civil servants.
“There are five fundamental characteristics shared by public libraries. The first is that they are generally supported by taxes (usually local, though any level of government can and may contribute); they are governed by a board to serve the public interest; they are open to all, and every community member can access the collection; they are entirely voluntary in that no one is ever forced to use the services provided; and they provide basic services without charge.
“Public libraries exist in many countries across the world and are often considered an essential part of having an educated and literate population. Public libraries are distinct from research libraries, school libraries, and other special libraries in that their mandate is to serve the general public's information needs rather than the needs of a particular school, institution, or research population. Public libraries also provide free services such as preschool story times to encourage early literacy, quiet study and work areas for students and professionals, or book clubs to encourage appreciation of literature in adults. Public libraries typically allow users to borrow books and other materials, i.e., take off the premises temporarily; they also have non-circulating reference collections and provide computer and Internet access to patrons.”
I think this description is important and should probably encourage all of us to think about it every so often, especially in a political climate which suggests that government needs to be reduced in size and cost so such “frills” should be eliminated.
Personally, while I have no desire to pay higher taxes, I think reducing/eliminating public libraries is a dangerous idea, which needs to be very carefully examined. So, let’s take a look at some of the provisions of this description and consider their implications.
First, of course, it says that public libraries are open to all, operate in the public interest, and provide basic services without charge. That’s important. A good library board will not waste our tax monies, but will strive to serve the general public by provide the best possible services at the lowest reasonable cost to the general public. There was a time (not that long ago) when people had to pay to “belong” to a library, which meant that one had to “be a member” even to be able to enter it, let alone actually use the materials it contained.
I think the most important consideration for public libraries, however, is that they are, generally, “…considered an essential part of having an educated and literate population.” Nowadays, too many people suggest that they are no longer needed because “everybody can get what they need online.” That’s not really true! Yes, there is a VAST amount of information available online, or on television. However, as I know all too well, it can be very difficult to determine the sources (or validity) of much of this information. After all, just because somebody posted something on the Internet does not make it true, anymore than some politician (or anyone else) saying something makes it true. We’ve seen far to many examples of this sort of thing in the last few weeks. “Well, somebody said it, so I retweeted it.” (And, of course, it just happened to make my opponent look bad).
I suppose what makes support for public libraries (or public schools, for that matter) subject to almost constant attack by some politicians (and, therefore, somewhat radical) is that it would appear that these politicians really don’t want “…an educated and literate population.” It should be obvious that it is far easier to convince poorly educated people to not waste time trying to figure out facts, they should just “vote with their gut.” After all, it worked quite well for Hitler, who was constantly pointing scapegoat fingers at “those people” (Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, communists, etc.) and suggesting that the only thing preventing Germany from being great was the malicious actions of “those people.”
The facts are, however, that we need an educated population to prevent these sorts of demagogues from rising to significant power and the Internet is NOT the final solution. After all, not everyone even has good access to the Internet. It simply isn’t available for everyone since computers and other equipment cost money and the infrastructure to support access simply isn’t readily available everywhere, even if you can obtain the equipment. While many libraries do provide some access, there are usually limits on time and ease of use. And libraries have to pay for access, just as individuals do, so cutting their funding can have an effect on public access.
Of course, public libraries can (and many do) also provide services such as story times for preschoolers, quiet areas for people to conduct research, places for public meetings, etc. And, average people actually DO engage in research on topics of interest to them! Libraries also often sponsor (or at least house) book clubs and the like. They also provide locations where such things as tax forms and other public documents can be housed so that people can have access to the actual documents which establish what their government is doing and why they say they are doing it. Of course, some politicians don’t really want that sort of thing to be readily available, as it might give too much power to the “wrong” sort of people, in spite of their calls for “transparency.” Many libraries also provide copying and/or fax services (at least for a, usually small, fee), which can also be interpreted as somewhat dangerous, because an informed population is more likely to ask the sort of questions which can’t be answered in a 25 second sound bite intended to get a politician elected. Hence, public libraries provide an important place of access for “… an educated and literate population.” It’s no wonder that some politicians want to reduce their possible influence.
That suggests that some of these politicians may not really favor the idea of an “educated” population. The other day, I heard a public figure (not a politician) talking about the idea of “a free college education for all” as a good idea, but only (if I heard him correctly) if that the “education” involved was, essentially, guaranteed to get the student a job. This individual suggested (rather strongly) that we didn’t need “humanities” majors because that sort of thing doesn’t lead to a “real” job. That got me thinking more about this because libraries are all about an educated population, not just “job training.”
Now it wasn’t that long ago that many “experts” (that is, people who actually have the background and training to have some credibility in discussing such things) were suggesting that there was little point in trying to teach people only to satisfy existing job requirements because most young people would have multiple careers during their working life, not just multiple positions.
To me (having done some research to determine that these “experts” actually seem to know something about this topic and, hence have some expertise in this area), that suggests that, while some sort of specialization (a major) may be a good idea, the real value of education should be to teach people how to find things out (do research, find out what seems to be the truth, obtain and evaluate information), understand complex issues (process that information, make connections, see relationships between various bits of information, think), and then communicate what they have discovered to others (speak, write, etc. with a reasonable degree of clarity and precision).
I would suggest that if one can do these three things to a reasonable level of competence, her/his ability to find gainful employment is greatly enhanced. I know that a few years ago I saw figures suggesting that many of the largest, most important companies were more enthusiastic about hiring and grooming “humanities” majors, who knew something about these things, for top level positions than they were to do the same with business school graduates who seemed to have more difficulty in “thinking outside the box.”
I believe that it is still true (I know this was the case a few years ago) that medical and law schools actively seek enrollees who had NOT majored in “Pre-Med” or “Pre-Law.” They wanted their applicants to have taken the needed courses, but they wanted them to have a “well-rounded” education as well, so they encouraged some sort of other major.
It seems to me that we have an interesting, but real, conflict here. Some politicians want to cut taxes (a popular idea), in order to gain voter support. But to do that, they want to eliminate such “frills” as libraries because we don’t “need” them. On the other hand, libraries seem to be one of the few things that protect us from the hate and fear mongers who want to use their positions in government to tell us how we “should” live (while claiming that they want “smaller government.”
At the same time, these elected “servants” want to turn all education into “job training” which can be completely locally controlled (despite increasing evidence of a more and more mobile population which suggests a greater need for a more national outlook). They also seem to think that education can be “measured” by standardized tests so that we can reduce it to simple graphs and spreadsheets, because numbers are always valid, as opposed to just easy to manipulate to suggest whatever they want them to show. Education seems to me to be a good deal more than just a score on a multiple-choice test, but this isn’t the time to go into that.
It may be a radical notion to some, but it seems to me that we may be in the process of turning our children’s future (and our democracy) over to the hands of those who want to use overly-simplistic numbers to evaluate both their teachers and them. That is appalling to me.
I think that supporting public libraries can be of important assistance in helping to strengthen our resistance to this sort of stupidity, to say nothing of the fact that we can actually find good, enjoyable books to read for, essentially, no cost.