It seems these days that a news story about libraries is incomplete without the phrase “budget cuts.” Sometimes one even finds “protest” in there, since from Connecticut to California people are protesting library budget cuts. Sometimes the protesters aren’t even librarians.
It’s refreshing that both librarians and normal people are starting to take libraries seriously. I haven’t seen any stories lately about how hip and tattooed librarians are these days, or how libraries aren’t just about boring old books, or how fun libraries can be when they clear out the books for more videogames.
For years, librarians have been trying to convince the public that libraries weren’t stuffy old book warehouses. They were fun places for the whole family, not essential places with serious purposes. The thinking, such as it was, seemed to be that if people know how fun the library is and how hip the librarians, they’ll use the library more.
For all I know, maybe people who otherwise wouldn’t have used the library started using it after finding out how fun it was. But even if they didn’t, the propaganda worked. People were convinced the library was for fun and games. Good job!
And it turns out that when times get tough and money is tight, fun and games are the first things to go. Librarians promoting frivolity in the library have succeeded in convincing people that the library is frivolous, and frivolous things don’t need public funding in recessions.
Librarian propaganda has shifted quite a bit in the past year, but even now it’s not necessarily about the essential educational value of libraries, and how without access to books and journals and databases and even reference librarians that the education of the people for the safeguard of order and liberty in a democracy will suffer. Education, literacy, reading, books. These aren’t things most Americans like very much, but they like to think they like them, and they like supporting them.
There’s a little of this, but too much is still focused on the library as social welfare center. That’s the impression left anytime you see statements like these:
- 35% of people come to the library to use the Internet!
- Job seekers come to the library…to use the Internet!
- In recessions, people use the library instead of purchasing books or CDs or DVDs.
I’m sure you can think of others. Any statements that talk about how much the library helps people who don’t have jobs or money is casting the library as a welfare center, and that’s a big mistake.
While it’s true that libraries have become social welfare centers, and at least one in California has actually hired a social worker, it might be even more of a mistake to link the library to welfare for poor people than it was to link the library to fun and games for the middle class.
Librarians are often kind and sympathetic souls, and many of them have sacrificed pay and prestige because they believe in the public mission of the library. That’s probably why it’s hard for them to understand some common American attitudes toward the poor. Basically, Americans don’t like poor people.
There are probably a lot of reasons for this, but a big one is that most Americans think of America as a meritocracy, and in a meritocracy if you’re poor, it’s your own fault. You’re a loser, and nobody except Chicago Cubs fans like losers, and even they don’t like poor people.
This is a basic truth about Americans that librarians have apparently missed. Who knows, maybe it’s because so many librarians are losers themselves they empathize with other losers.
And even Americans who do care about poor people don’t really care if they can’t surf the Internet or watch free DVDs. Thus, the two streams of propaganda – libraries as entertainment centers and libraries as welfare centers – come together to undermine support for libraries.
The meritocratic and more or less successful American responds to this propaganda negatively. Free DVDs? If people can’t afford their own DVDs, then they should go get a job, or get a better job, or get two jobs. If they’re sitting around watching DVDs, they obviously have some time on their hands. The same response works for just about every frivolous or welfare-related justification for the library. A lot of good, decent, ordinary Americans think with some justification, “I work hard, and you can, too.”
Does this sound harsh? If it sounds harsh to you, then consider that the belief that America is a meritocracy led to the greatest expansion of public libraries this country has ever seen. Andrew Carnegie, a supreme meritocrat, was probably the greatest benefactor of public libraries ever. Why? Because he knew from experience that education was a key to his success, and he believe that people should have the opportunity to educate themselves so that they could be successful.
The American meritocratic view (poorly understood, but we are talking about Americans here) is behind such nonsense as saying libraries are “socialist.” Socialism is seen as a system where the winners are handicapped to help the losers. It’s unfair precisely because it’s not a meritocracy.
Socialism? Welfare? Hardly. Welfare implies a handout. Libraries aren’t a handout. They aren’t even a hand up. Carnegie didn’t want to give poor people or immigrants handouts. He wanted to give them and everyone else tools to help themselves if they wanted to improve themselves and succeed. And if they didn’t want to work hard to succeed, then that was just too bad for them.
What modern-day Carnegie would fund libraries to supply videogames? Or to be simply free Internet cafes? If libraries are just places to access the Internet, it’d be cheaper for communities to just set up free Internet cafes at shopping malls and get rid of the librarians and books.
Librarians will be more successful with their propaganda if they realize that most Americans consider America a meritocracy and figure out where to place public libraries in that belief. Then they should leave the frivolousness and the welfare talk behind. It might be true that people love libraries, but people won’t fund libraries if they think libraries are just there to entertain poor people.
Giving someone access to books and learning isn’t the same as giving putting them on the dole. Public libraries are there for people to improve themselves and succeed. The existence of public schools and libraries help justify the meritocracy. If people have no access to books and learning, then it’s not their fault they’re poor. The American ideology of meriticracy isn’t going away, even if libraries do. But promoting libraries as necessary components of the ideology of meritocracy will gain them more support than as welfare or entertainment centers.