Okay, so back to last week. If they didn’t already exist, would public libraries be founded today? Probably not. Why not? Here are a few possible reasons.
1) Crossbow killings. This is the new scourge of Canadian public libraries. I guess they use crossbows because guns are too noisy for libraries. If they were asked to tax themselves to support a public library, the peace-loving, non-violent citizens of the United States would take one look at Canada and think, we don’t want to foster the sort of crossbow violence endemic to Canadian society. Libraries don’t provide a haven from crime. They just provide a convenient gathering place for crossbow victims.
2) The Internet. (I don’t have a link for that one, but it’s out there.) A hundred years ago, or even thirty years ago, it was more difficult to find reading for entertainment or instruction or education than it is now. Libraries and bookstores were the best places to go. That’s not true any more. Most people don’t read many books, but plenty of people read, and the sort of things they read can be found on the Internet.
A lot of people foolishly assume that everything is on the Internet, as in this bizarre rant that makes claims like “You can also read most books online at college and university websites.” Umm, sure you can. But if the Internet is the only place one goes for reading, then in a sense everything really is on the Internet. What’s not there doesn’t matter. But look at what’s there! Google Books, Project Gutenberg, fan fiction, porn – there are books galore. And magazines and news and blogs; there’s a never-ending stream of stuff to read and do. Not to mention Amazon.
As for those people who still have no connection to the Internet, they don’t matter enough to count. There aren’t that many of them, certainly not enough to vote themselves a public Internet cafe. These days both computers and Internet connections are cheap and getting cheaper, and it’s possible the “digital divide” will close on its own in a decade or two, just like the “refrigerator divide” and the “television divide” did. We are approaching a time when every home and possibly every person will have a device with an Internet connection the way they all have refrigerators, toilets, telephones, and televisions, which wasn’t the case a century ago.
3) Commercialization and copyright in the Digital World. Almost all media that most people consume – books, articles, movies, music – will be digital at some point in the future. A decade, maybe two. Maybe even sooner. There will most likely be printed books for decades, but they won’t be the popular books, the kind of bestsellers that bring people to libraries. Those books will all be licensed to readers and read on their proprietary devices. Libraries might try to lend these devices despite violating the terms of service, but that’s a poor use of public money besides being illegal. Unlike printed books, there probably won’t be physical manifestations of digital movies or music. They will all be downloads or streaming.
Libraries try to keep up with the changing times, but that’s just because they already exist. If they didn’t, does anyone really think Amazon or book publishers or the film or music industries would sell or license content to an organization that then wanted to give it away for free? Absolutely not, and unlike a century ago, they can freeze libraries out of the loop with controlled digital content.
4) Hostility to government. A century ago, most Americans had little experience with government. Most Americans lived in rural areas. There was no income tax, no Social Security, no IRS, no FDA, no Medicare, no FDIC, no EPA. Most people were poor, ignorant, and unhealthy. Move forward a century, and think about all the benefits organized government action has brought us. Our food is safer, our air and water cleaner, our poor better treated, our elderly saved from destitution, our environments more sanitary, our money safer, our children given more, if not better, educational opportunities. And what do we see? Yahoos frothing at the mouth about how “government is the problem.” People that ignorant wouldn’t tax themselves to support another government service, and there are enough of them out there to stymie any attempt.
5) The death of knowledge. We have “information” all around us, but we seem to live in a society of people who don’t believe in facts or knowledge anymore. Everything is opinion, and the louder it’s broadcast the better it is. Libraries can’t support education and lifelong learning for a society that doesn’t believe in either, and people aren’t going to tax themselves for something they don’t believe in.
6) The death of democracy. Librarians go on about how libraries are necessary for democracy, but we don’t really live in a democracy, if we ever did. I argued a few months ago that libraries should claim to be necessary tools to support the ideology of the meritocracy, but we don’t really live in a meritocracy, either. Meritocracy is just what the reigning plutocracy wants us to think exists. If you don’t think America is becoming a plutocracy, read this and this and this and see if your faith in American democracy is still strong. Plutocrats don’t want libraries or educated citizens, even if they have pluck. When our “socialist” President agrees to extend tax cuts for the rich, you know what kind of country we’re living in.
So there are a few reasons I don’t think public libraries would be founded today. If the threat of crossbow killings isn’t enough, the others would be. This probably has some implications for the future of public libraries in the long run, but in the long run we’re all dead.