(Image: New York Public Library)
by Amien Essif
If you were airdropped, blindfolded, into a strange town and given nothing but a bus ticket, to where would you ride that bus? You might be surprised to learn that there’s only one good answer, and that’s the public library. The library is the public living room, and if ever you are stripped of everything private—money, friends and orientation—you can go there and become a human again.
Of course, you don’t have to be homeless to use a library, but that’s the point. You don’t have to be anyone in particular to go inside and stay as long as you want, sit in its armchairs, read the news, write your dissertation, charge your phone, use the bathroom, check your email, find the address of a hotel or homeless shelter. Of all the institutions we have, both public and private, the public library is the truest democratic space.
The library’s value isn’t lost on us. A Gallup survey from 2013 found that libraries are not just popular, they’re extremely popular. Over 90 percent of Americans feel that libraries are a vital part of their communities. Compare this to 53 percent for the police, 27 percent for public schools, and just 7 percent for Congress, and you’re looking at perhaps the greatest success of the public sector.
John Palfrey, in his new book BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google, gives some truly bummer statistics on what’s happening to this beloved institution. A government report showed that while the nation’s public libraries served 298 million people in 2010 (that’s 96 percent of the U.S. population), states had cut funding by 38 percent and the federal government by 19 percent between 2000 and 2010. “It seems extraordinary that a public service with such reach should be, in effect, punished despite its success,” writes Palfrey.
Of necessity, he cites these tough economic times as a reason for this “punishment.” But according to Palfrey, one of the greatest threats to libraries is nostalgia—the way that we, the loving public, associate libraries with the pleasures of a bygone era, and assume that the growth of the Internet is slowly draining libraries of their usefulness.
“Nostalgia is too thin a reed for librarians to cling to in a time of such transition,” Palfrey writes. “Thinking of libraries as they were ages ago and wanting them to remain the same is the last thing we should want for them.”
In our heartfelt but naïve fondness for “quiet, inviting spaces” full of books and nothing else, we fail to realize that libraries are becoming more important, not less, to our communities and our democracy.
Humans are producing such quantities of data—2.5 quintillion bytes of data daily, to be precise—and on such a steep curve, that 90 percent of all existing data is less than two years old. An overwhelming amount of information, access to which is marked by the same stark inequality that exists between economic classes, demands to be moderated for the public good, and libraries are the institutions that do that.
The giant tech companies have insinuated themselves into this role through outsize capital investments and help from favorable government policy, overseeing the way we communicate and carry out research. Private companies have even become the “key intermediary” in the lending of e-books, a service offered by libraries but supervised by publishers or third parties. As Palfrey argues, we need to defend the “public option” in information management:
“The risk of a small number of technically savvy, for-profit companies determining the bulk of what we read and how we read it is enormous. The great beauty of the rich, diverse library system that has developed over past century and a half has been the role of librarians in selecting and making available a range of material for people to consult and enjoy. No one pressing an ideology can co-opt this system; no single commercial entity can do an end run around the library system in the interest of profit.”
It’s not a mystery why 10-year-old tech firms sometimes have more credit in the information world than 100-year-old libraries. “The shift in the information practices of library users,” writes Palfrey, “is far outpacing the digital shift in libraries.”
BiblioTech is packed with proposals for what libraries can become, all the roles they can play in public life: networks of digital media that can be loaned for free, not purchased; “maker-spaces” that offer equipment so that people can make instead of simply consume culture; easily accessible and networked archives of national heritage; job-search centers; clinics for the technologically illiterate and refuges for those who cannot afford new media—all of this in addition to their current functions.
At times, Palfrey’s voice has too much Mr. Rogers about it. “The Boston Public Library[’s]… inspiring efforts are only the beginning of what will be possible when libraries seize the opportunities of the networked digital age.” It reads sometimes like the book version of a Power Point presentation preparing us for the digital age. Palfrey exercises a bit of novelty, though, with the term “the digital plus age”—which is still vapid, but at least acknowledges that our world is not, and never will be, entirely defined by digits.
Palfrey takes the middle ground while coaxing libraries into the future, as he sees it. He is adamant about the importance of maintaining print archives of information since physical ink and paper is much more stable than digital. He also highlights the importance of physical, communal space in education and communication. And librarians as physical people will always have a unique purpose in his vision of the future library.
These arguments, however, rely too heavily on the humans-are-better-than-technology rationale where “better” is measured by technological rather than humanistic standards. If librarians have a higher success rate than Amazon’s algorithm at recommending books, this might not be true forever. Does that mean we won’t need librarians at some point? No, the dilemma of disappearing libraries is not just about efficiency, it’s also about values. Librarians recommend books because they are part of a community and want to start a discussion among the people they see around them—to solve the world’s problems, but also just to have a conversation, because people want to be near each other. The faster technology improves and surpasses human capability, the more obvious it becomes that being human is not merely about being capable, it’s about relating to other humans.
What gets short shrift in BiblioTech, then, is the importance of retaining some kind of monastery of dusty knowledge, a church of books. Print has been around since human ancestors drew tracks in the dust and is still the only form of durable information that requires no mediation—that is, no device to interpret it. Reading a book is the most direct relationship a person can have with information apart from listening to someone speak and there must be some kind of common cultural institution filled with pews of comfy chairs and the musk of paper. Like the bicycle, the book is the best thing for what it does and will likely be around as long as humans are around because, as James Bennet wrote in the Atlantic, “technologies have a way of supplementing, rather than simply replacing, one another.”
Palfrey suggests that, while temporarily maintaining their print collections, librarians should “create new nostalgia” by way of an overdue update: optimizing their facilities as public information centers in this exciting new age of digital screens and flying machines. But why should we have to demolish contemplative reading rooms to make space for data exchange centers? Why should all of these necessary services get shoehorned into one institution with a flagging budget? Because the brash obtuseness and anti-communitarianism of today’s mainstream politics means that only established and universally beloved institutions like libraries stand a chance against the austerity-crazed slashings of the “bipartisan” government, and therefore new ideas must seek shelter in old houses. That’s the cold truth Palfrey glosses over—that libraries aren’t lagging behind the digital revolution because of a lack of inspiration and gumption. Instead, it’s because the government refuses to create new institutions to solve new problems as it once did. Thus libraries have become the ad hoc receptacle for all of our country’s gaps in social services—with shrinking funds.
Take the old gripe about homeless people in libraries—that college kids can’t get their work done because people with social, psychological and hygienic disorders are overrepresented among the stacks. But when libraries have become the only quiet indoor place for those who otherwise live on the street, there’s no way around it.
Because Palfrey is transfixed by the rationale of austerity, he talks about financial shortfall as if it were plate tectonics. “Too many mayors, and town managers, forced to make hard budget choices,” he explains, “are slashing library budgets to save other essential services.” The key word in this sentence is “forced,” but Palfrey doesn’t make a big deal about who is doing the forcing.
Really, the scarcity is ideological. Palfrey hints at it, but it needs to be dealt with head on. Libraries are at risk for the same reason as food stamps—not because there’s no demand or taxpayers can’t afford it, but because Republicans and Democrats alike are divesting from the public good, favoring private enterprise and making conditions ripe for a Google-Apple-Amazon-Facebook oligopoly on information.
“It’s not too much of a stretch to say that the fate of well-informed, open, free republics could hinge on the future of libraries,” Palfrey writes in his conclusion. In fact, the fate of our republic hinges on the vitality of all public life, and libraries should not be required—even on double or triple budget—to take on the whole burden.
BiblioTech is a start toward maintaining a public intellectual life in the digital future, but we’re in grave need of a view of the whole thing; how people regardless of their circumstances access information, as well as how they get access to formal education, communication technology, employment, shelter, green space, art, performance, and entertainment, among other things. Too much of our culture is invitation-only or curated by private companies with profit in mind. Meanwhile Congress, undeterred by its 15 percent approval rating, continues its campaign of privatization and austerity.
We certainly need a free and open institution, prepped for the 21st century, where people can engage themselves in democracy. But then, of course, we also need a democracy.
This article was first published on Alternet