Libraries are there to help people educate themselves and provide things the public needs but can’t provide otherwise. That’s always been the most compelling case for public libraries, and always the one smart librarians rush to in hard times.
If there comes a time when libraries aren’t necessary for this purpose, if someday everything really is digitized and free on the Internet and the Internet is freely available on the inside of our eyelids, then libraries would cease to exist. We know that day isn’t ever coming, but a lot of people think it’s already here. Except for the eyelids part.
By now, we should know that Americans aren’t going to support public libraries in hard times if they think they’re entertainment centers or welfare organizations. We don’t like poor people and don’t care if they aren’t entertained. Simple as that.
Oh, and another thing about the poor I just remembered. Not only do they not have any money, they usually don’t vote.
So why would people with money and who vote care about public libraries in bad times? They have to think there’s something in the library that isn’t available cheaply elsewhere.
People who use libraries know this already. They check out books, download audiobooks, use the library databases for research, and at a rate they couldn’t afford without community support. It might not take a village to raise a child, but it sure as heck takes a consortium to afford Ebsco databases.
But that’s in good times. When there’s a lot of fat in a country, providing a little community entertainment is nice. We have parks and parades, why not libraries. But in tough financial times, the community, or at least the politicians of that community, decide that entertainment isn’t really crucial. Thus, cut the library budget, and people will just have to talk to their spouses or take a walk instead of watching that free DVD.
So the question is, do public libraries provide something that’s necessary, but not generally available? Not just nice, but absolutely necessary for the quality of life of people in the community?
Here’s where librarians start talking about Internet access, but I suspect that response doesn’t resonate well with the Americans who both have money and vote, those middle and upper middle who participate most in the political process with their money and their votes.
Why wouldn’t they care? Because, like the majority of Americans, they have Internet access either at home or work or both, and if they didn’t have it, they could afford it if it was a priority. Even a lot of poorer Americans could. How many people without Internet connections have cable television and/or cell phones? Most of them, I bet. And don’t say that even if you can afford an Internet service you still have to buy a computer. To use cable, you still have to buy a television.
People have priorities, and lots of "poor" Americans have cable television and cell phones. This isn’t some third world country. Besides, if this were the problem, it would probably be cheaper to subsidize Internet connections than pay for public libraries.
So what do public libraries have that is necessary for the common good, but not available cheaply elsewhere? Whatever it is has to have a serious purpose, something people would vote to tax themselves for even in an anti-tax climate.
The thing is, there’s not much. Strip away the leisure reading and the audio books and the Internet connections and the DVDs, and libraries become small, shrunken places. That’s basically what’s happening now. Libraries are cutting hours, cutting staff, cutting anything not absolutely necessary. You wouldn’t know it listening to librarians, but of all the dire library budget stories, I haven’t seen many where all the libraries in an area would actually close completely.
If librarians can’t convince politicians not to cut, the important thing for the time being is to focus on what can be cut that isn’t absolutely necessary for the serious purposes for which people are willing to fund libraries. If libraries cut the necessary, then they really will have no purpose at all.
And what is the necessary? This is where choices become very hard. What’s more important for the community? Library staff or library databases? Romance novels or reference books? Librarians have to emphasize what libraries have that most people really need, even if only occasionally, rather than what they want only in good times.
Will libraries be fun places? Not for most people. The DMV isn’t a fun place to be, either, but we need it anyway.