Annoyed Librarian
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Library Problems for Progressives

ALA Annual is coming up soon, in Vegas of all places. No doubt the SRRT is busily trying to think up resolutions that have nothing to do with libraries so they can waste the ALA Council’s time debating them before they’re defeated.

Instead of more of that nonsense, I recommend they address something actually having to do with libraries. You can do that and still be “progressive.” There are a lot of library problems out there.

For example, check out this news story from Madison, WI. It’s about an Affirmative Action Committee recommending various changes in Madison, some of which are about libraries.

“The commission also focused on the lack of libraries in the less affluent East Washington Avenue area, with Ald. Joseph Clausius, District 17, calling it a “disservice.”

This seems to be pretty standard around the country. Previously I’ve written about the lack of library locations and hours in north Philadelphia, which happens to be a relatively poor area of the city. It’s that way all over.

It almost seems like the only way you get great library service is if you make enough money that you could probably buy most of the books and stuff you wanted anyway.

Some of the problems mentioned aren’t necessarily about libraries and access to what they provide. The commission chair “specifically cited the lack of minority librarians in existing libraries as a recurring problem.”

“When you go to the library, you don’t see people of color, and people of color blanket the city,” Carter said.

As most of us know, that’s not a Madison library issue. That’s just how the profession is, overwhelmingly white and female. More diversity is even something the ALA has tried to work on.

With the money, that’s an issue that could probably be addressed in Madison itself. They have a library school there. Fund some minority scholarships and you’ll be set in a few years.

The good news is that according to the 2010 Census mentioned here, “The racial makeup of the city was 78.9% White, 7.3% African American, 0.4% Native American, 7.4% Asian, 2.9% from other races, and 3.1% from two or more races, and “Hispanic or Latino of any race were 6.8% of the population.”

That’s pretty white, so it should be relatively easy to mirror the population, more so than in, I don’t know, Detroit or some place.

Meanwhile, people in Illinois are complaining about the lack of libraries in prisons. According to the headline, “Over Half of Illinois’ Prisons Don’t Have Adequate Libraries.”

That doesn’t quite jibe with the only statistic we get in the article, where we find out that “in Illinois there’s approximately 26 prisons, but out of the 26 only 16 have functioning libraries.”

By my calculation, that’s about 61% of the prisons that do have functioning libraries, but I guess “Over Half of Illinois’ Prisons Have Adequate Libraries” isn’t as catchy a headline.

Getting prisoners to read and generally educating them better will help them when they get out of prison. I don’t have any evidence, but I suspect that people who read a lot don’t commit many crimes, and if they do they’re nonviolent white collar crimes and they’re never caught or prosecuted.

If they could get the education necessary to be in a position to pull off those crimes, they’d be much better off than they are now.

Some of the reasoning seems a little flawed, though.

Statistics show that more than 70% of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level. The reasons why can be argued for days. But Lolita Dumas blames the system’s failing libraries.

That’s putting the cart before the horse, or something like that. Insert whatever banal cliche best fits the situation. The prisoners couldn’t read before they got to prison, so blaming the prisons for that seems pointless.

On the other hand, where did those prisoners come from? I’m betting they came from areas without good libraries or schools, areas where education and literacy weren’t considered important enough by enough people.

Who were these people? Well, there are plenty of poor areas, especially in inner cities and rural nowheres, where the culture of poverty pretty much destroys the will for education even on the off chance it’s available.

Which brings us back to the first problem, the lack of libraries. You could argue that the schools have libraries, but school libraries are closing around the country as well.

So if literacy and reading are good things that improve people’s lives, as librarians always seem to assume, we’re not doing a very good job of making these available to the people who need them the most.

Speaking only as a librarian, that bothers me a lot more than whether Edward Snowden is a whistleblower or a traitor.



  1. “By my calculation, that’s about 61% of the prisons that do have functioning libraries, but I guess “Over Half of Illinois’ Prisons Have Adequate Libraries” isn’t as catchy a headline.”

    Functional doesn’t necessarily mean adequate. To be functional all they need is a staff member and some books to check out. To be adequate they’d likely have a very knowledgeable staff member with great legal resources and a wide array of reading material.

  2. feldspar says:

    Public libraries are good for something but beyond that there is little agreement. It seems to be a multi-tasking institution that can’t be pinned down to one specific primary function like a hospital or bus line.

    … If it is, as is often heard, that difficult for people of color to get a good high school and college education in America why would they be expected to settle for being just another city employee as a public librarian? Wouldn’t you want to do better after all the sacrifices?

    … And really, how “great” does library service have to be? It’s like how “great” does a public education have to be – I’d be satisfied with “good.”

    • Frumious Bandersnatch says:

      This is a problem we’ve brought on ourselves. We are vaguely defined (and therefore vaguely supported) in the mind of the public because we’ve spent so many years in the paroxysms of our own identity crisis that no one (including us) knows why we are here or what we’re about anymore. Our actual primary problem is our own paranoia about remaining relevant, and the mission creep that causes.

  3. Funny, AL. What’s funny is you are correct, as usual. Just hours ago, for example, Larry and Al of SRRT are again pushing ALA for fossil fuel “divestment” and decrying “carbon bubbles.” Never mind the library bubbles you mentioned, right?

  4. Cut Both Ways says:

    Has the annual conference in Florida been canceled yet?

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