It’s not a good time to be in the education business, which to some extent most librarians are. The subjects librarians teach may vary, from "information literacy" to "Hulu," but being in the information business also means being in the education business.
The education business is floundering. Public libraries are closing or cutting back hours and services. Public schools are getting rid of their school librarians and whatever remains of art, music, or languages they once had. Outside of rich suburbs, public schools themselves seem in decline. Rich private universities are firing people left and right. Public universities seem doomed, with the best of them, the Michigans and the Berkeleys, becoming more like privates than publics.
The immediate reason is obvious: funding cuts. Because of the recession and the decline in tax revenue, states and communities have less money to spend, and they’re cutting back on inessentials like education. For those who follow these things, the latest recessionary cuts are just a harsher example of a long trend.
A lot of librarians like to keep up with trends, but not the painful ones. States have been cutting or freezing education budgets for a long time, and state financing of public education has declined as a percentage of public university budgets almost everywhere. Thus, they have to raise tuition to keep going.
This creates a vicious circle of its own. Universities raise tuition, which means the lower classes are excluded as only middle or upper-middle and above can afford a college education. When universities start getting expensive, parents and students want more for their money than books, classrooms, and computers. Thus we get expensive athletic centers and fancier cafeterias and dormitories. Offering undergraduates a spa experience drives up costs even further.
All this means it’s also a bad time to need an education, especially if you can’t afford an an extra $20-50,000 a year for college and your community won’t fund a decent library.
It’s especially ironic because we hear from politicians – sometimes the same politicians who cut education budgets – that America needs a highly educated workforce to compete globally in the next century. I’m not exactly sure what it would mean to "compete globally," but that’s the sort of verbiage they use. Right now we’re competing globally by enticing engineers and scientists from other countries to settle in the United States and enjoy our rich cultural heritage of reality TV and Wal-Mart.
One can only come to the conclusion that Americans really don’t want education, at least not for the majority. Education isn’t considered a public good. I guess if roads and bridges aren’t public goods, then education isn’t likely to be. Infrastructure, apparently, is a dirty word, whether physical or intellectual. The last bridge and the last public library might collapse at the same moment.
Come now, you might say! Of course we consider education a public good. We have public schools and public universities and public libraries! But slapping the name "public" on something without funding it adequately doesn’t really count. According to the Supreme Court, money is speech, and states and communities have spoken very clearly about their commitment to education as a public good.
And what can librarians do about it? Probably nothing at all, because those of us in education are the least American of all. We don’t sacrifice everything for profits. We help people without expecting tips. We don’t hustle people, or at least most of us don’t. We don’t scourge the poor. We believe there are values beyond the bottom line and actually live by those values. What could be more unAmerican than that?
It seems unlikely that Americans in general will listen to the concerns of people so obviously out of tune with American society, especially when the concerns expressed my so many are so trivial.
The twopointopians and oneohonions who dominate the librarian public sphere rarely address serious issues or branch out beyond the world of shiny new toys to consider the fundamental issue. They want to get people into libraries, but that’s not the problem; they just think it’s the problem.
People are coming to libraries. More than ever, if you believe the ALA. (I know, I know.) They’re coming to look for jobs and get Internet access and books and DVDs and newspapers they can no longer afford. Those services might turn out to be more relevant than shiny toys.
People might also come to the library to use shiny tools as well as the books and DVDs, but shiny tools won’t save a library without funding. I’m hoping ALA lobbying will have more success if it looks like they’re trying to bolster public libraries rather support Internet porn for children.
The commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty. That’s all the people, or at least all of them who can meet the challange. Libraries are a part of the public education system, and their future is tied to the success of that system, not Twitter.
On the bright side, if the public education system collapses, it’s not like everyone in America will be worse off. To paraphrase Jesus, the rich we will always have with us. Or maybe none of us will be worse off, and it’s just that the meds aren’t working or I had too much chocolate on Valentine’s Day and I’m feeling gloomy, so I’ll end on an American note.
Have a nice day!