A couple of weeks ago I mentioned what bad shape some British and Canadian libraries were compared to American libraries. Apparently I got only part of the story, because the British situation seems to be getting even worse.
According to this column arguing for libraries as public spaces that don’t need to make a profit for someone, “it is estimated that cuts to local authorities will force 100 libraries to close by the end of 2015, with another 200-300 becoming reliant on volunteers.”
If we extrapolated that to the population size of the United States, that would be like 600 libraries possibly closing and 1200-1500 becoming reliant on volunteers. Something like that already seems to be happening with school libraries, but public libraries haven’t faced anything like this sort of devastation.
The column argues that it’s ideology that’s crushing the libraries, not any sort of budget issue, since Britain has plenty of money compared to most countries and it’s not in state of total war or anything.
The idea that there might be some worth in a public space that does not make a profit for someone or other is baffling to our ministers. It’s almost ideologically offensive. It undermines the whole philosophy behind the transformation of Britain over the past 30 or so years, where everything and everyone must justify themselves in economic terms.
This is a bit like the guy from Potsdam quoted last week, who believed that taxes should only pay for “essential services,” and I guess it’s like the Tea Party libertarians who wants to shut down the parts of government that don’t benefit them directly.
It seems the “Arts Council is at least trying to make the case for libraries in terms that the Treasury might understand — quantifying how much the British economy receives back for every pound invested long term.”
The ALA and other groups have tried to do that for American libraries over the years, claiming that a dollar invested brings back two dollars or whatever.
But there’s another way of thinking of libraries: “What if libraries simply provide pleasure, enlightenment, civilisation, respite? I can think of no better reason to save them.”
I don’t know how that will play out in Britain, but something like that seems to work better in America for some reason. I’m sure there are Americans who are swayed by the ROI argument about libraries, but surely most library supporters think about the other positive, nonremunerative things libraries do: story hours, support for children’s literacy, leisure reading for adults, Internet access for the poor, even Third Places, etc.
The library supporters are in the minority, and because American support for public libraries seems less top down than in British libraries, it’s harder to gain control over the government entities that fund them. If the federal government cut out all library funding, that would hurt libraries, but not destroy them.
Even in America, though, it seems to be the public libraries the anti-government types go for. Maybe I’m not reading the right stuff because I focus on libraries, but I never see calls to close municipal parks, for example, because they’re socialism or a waste of taxpayer money or whatever excuse people make.
Parks are probably less expensive to maintain than libraries, although maybe they aren’t. Regardless, they’re not free. They require managers and groundskeepers and various people running them and keeping them clean and tidy.
But there’s not a controversy over them the way there sometimes is over libraries. Public parks, and especially public playgrounds, are just socialism, after all, according to the anti-government ideology, giving open public space for the poor sods who can’t afford to have their own lawns and playgrounds.
Public space is bad for business, or so some people think. The enclosure of the commons in England, after all, was part of the beginning of the capitalist revolution there. All those peasants merely survived off the land, they couldn’t make money from it, so they had to go.
If the same logic is used to destroy public libraries, lots of people would be worse off, and not just the poor. I just hope the ROI fanaticism about libraries that seems to be taking over in Britain stays more contained in America.