I wanted to post something yesterday as usual, but I’m still a little groggy from the AL anniversary party. The champagne was flowing a bit too freely, and I’ve since been in no mood to write. Plus, I seem to have misplaced my shoes during the party, but that’s a long story.
All week I’ve been thinking more about the mean anti-library guy wanting to shut down public libraries and privatize the world. Libraries seem to be shutting down all over the country, and not just in our country if an article I read about British libraries facing closures is true. Part of this is due to the recession. Times are hard. Tax revenues are down. We’re told it’s good news when only half a million people file new unemployment claims in a month.
These are also the times, as you’ve likely been reading, when people start using public libraries more. With stagnant or reduced household incomes, finding books and entertainment that doesn’t cost money immediately is attractive. People who might have dashed out to buy the latest Dan Brown book now wait for a library copy. Dropping your cable television subscription to save some money isn’t quite as hard when you can get DVDs from the library. Then there are the people who need help finding jobs and access to the information services libraries provide.
This story might be typical. Declining budgets, higher use. Library budgets have been stagnant or declining for years. What were all these people who now need the library doing then? Probably eroding support for libraries by not using or supporting them. After all, who needs libraries when times are good? Sure, there are the poor, but the poor tend not to pay taxes or vote, so they’re no help.
In general, it hasn’t really been that expensive to replace many of the services of public libraries without leaving home. If you can afford an Internet connection and a cheap computer, there’s a world of information and entertainment at your fingertips. Wikipedia supplies your ready reference. Government information is freely available. Go toHulu and similar sites, and you can watch ordinary television shows without paying for cable. Music downloads are pretty cheap these days. Add a few bucks a month forNetflix and you’ve got DVDs and their streaming video service thrown in for free.
And it seems to me only a matter of time before some company – Amazon or Google would be my bet – does for ebooks what Netflix has done for videos, something like Questia , except with books people would actually want to read. $20 a month for all the titles you could read checked out one at a time would seem like a bargain for a lot of people who now depend on libraries to get their bestseller fix. Even without that,ebooks are generally pretty cheap, and cheap used printed books are easy to find through the Internet.
For about $100 a month, you would thus have everything you might ordinarily get from the library. Why would anyone go? Fewer people must have been going to libraries or they wouldn’t be so desperate to attract "customers" and support. But the people who are the most attractive for libraries – the earnest middle classes – haven’t needed them.
It might be the case that the people who are now using libraries in greater numbers are themselves partly responsible for poor library budgets. In the good times, lots of people don’t need libraries, so they don’t support them. In bad times, when the need libraries the most, the libraries are thus less able to help them.
One argument for libraries isn’t that they provide everyone with useful services, because they don’t. Plenty of people don’t use libraries because they can afford all the stuff they would normally get at them. However, it’s not a question of what libraries do for people at the moment. Libraries are something that should be supported as a "just in case" measure at the very least. Right now someone might be employed and can afford Internet service and cable TV and a Kindle, but what happens when all that goes away? Libraries serve immediate users, but they’re also like insurance policies. They’re insurance against ignorance and boredom. Libraries are valuable even if no one is using them.