Public libraries have to be the strangest social agencies ever. It’s the one publicly funded institution that nobody can say for sure what it’s supposed to do.
I would count librarians in that group as well. If you asked ten public librarians what the purpose of a public library is, you might not get ten different answers, but you would probably get three or four.
The public that the public library supposedly serves has no consensus on the issue.
Here’s a Canadian columnist making the baseless but now familiar claim that ebook readers and public libraries are equivalent entities. Because ebook readers exist and literary classics from the nineteenth century are free on them, “no one, at least in our First World, is being kept out of the magic kingdoms of learning and imagination because he or she cannot access books.”
Sure. Maybe when governments decide that ebook reader ownership is a civil right and start handing everyone Kindles and iPads, this will be true, but I don’t think that will be happening anytime soon, even in Canada.
Not to mention that if confined to pre-1923 sources your learning will be somewhat outdated. “Hey, did you know that the sun never sets on the British empire? Oh, and I learned that there was some sort of riot in Munich by a group called National Socialists. I don’t think they’ll be very successful now that their leader is going to prison.”
A headline in Seattle asks, “Are Public Libraries Obsolete?” Using Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, we know the answer, which is “no.” Naturally, the headline leads us into an article arguing that public libraries aren’t obsolete, or at least that they shouldn’t be made obsolete.
This sort of passionate bickering about public libraries has been going on more or less since there were public libraries. I assume it’s because public libraries aren’t essential public services.
You might protest, but if public libraries were essential public services, there wouldn’t be this sort of arguing about them for 150 years. Nobody argues that cities should eliminate police departments or sanitation services, but public libraries are always ripe targets for budget cuts when times get hard.
They’re treated by politicians as luxury services for the good times. The politicians no doubt think it’s a pity that people won’t be able to get free DVDs and bestsellers, but that’s just life.
Even a lot of librarians don’t think they’re essential public services, which explains all the “marketing” of public libraries to “customers”? If you believe that libraries have to be marketed to customers, then you already believe that libraries aren’t essential public services. “Essential public services” don’t market themselves to customers; that’s what private businesses do.
People interact with stores trying to sell them something as customers. People interact with government agencies as citizens. There is a huge difference between being a customer and being a citizen, or at least there used to be.
No other public agency has to “market” itself to “customers,” except those like the United States Postal Service that have essentially been privatized and have to generate their own revenue, which libraries don’t have to do, at least not yet.
The reasoning behind the marketing also demonstrates that the marketing librarians don’t think of libraries as essential public goods.
If they don’t market, fewer people will use libraries, or at least that’s how the logic goes. If fewer people use libraries, then usage statistics will go down, and if usage statistics go down, then what? It supposedly shows that libraries aren’t necessary, and thus their budgets can be cut. It’s a numbers game, but true public goods shouldn’t play that game, because it’s a losing one.
The confusion is thinking that a lot of people using something makes it important, and thus perhaps even essential. The only problem with that argument is that it’s completely wrong. Just because a lot of people use a service doesn’t mean it’s important or essential.
Most Americans have televisions in their homes and some service providing entertainment for them. If the federal government started paying for cable television for everyone in the country, most people would sign up, including most of the Tea Party crowd.
That doesn’t make it an essential service. It just means people like getting stuff directly for free, even if they pay for it indirectly, or even better, if others pay for it indirectly.
The numbers game also assumes that if only a small percentage of a community used the public library, then the public library would have no reason to exist. If there’s no justification for a library other than a lot of people use it if it’s around, then there’s no good justification for a library.
The Canadian columnist is writing as Toronto considers closing some of its public libraries. An article in the Toronto Sun about the closings includes a way not to argue for public libraries. After mentioning a potential branch closure, the article says, “One problem, it’s busy.”
We’ve heard this familiar refrain during the recession as libraries have been threatened with closures or budget cutbacks, but “busy” isn’t enough, especially since we all know that the majority of the business going on in public libraries is hardly an essential public service, but instead a luxury entertainment service.
Librarians need to start reminding people of why libraries are necessary, even if nobody is using them. That’s a harder argument to make because it can’t be tied up into a neat little quantified package, but ultimately it will be a better argument.