(This was originally posted on June 3rd 2015 to the General Literature Discussion subforum of MyMedia)
In late April, National Geographic posted a photographic essay on the homeless patrons of some of California’s busiest urban libraries. Both the essay and the photographs are wonderful, and illustrative of a truly diverse segment of the population of the United States.
However, it is the comments that really got to me. Well, most of the comments. Such as:
Public libraries are secular sanctuaries, truly representative of the greatest virtues of the American experiment. We see these faces and accept without judgment diverse ways of being; we read literature here representing that same diversity. Libraries tend to be more broadly welcoming than churches or synagogues, temples or mosques, those “sacred” sanctuaries that generally expect some conformity to a particular faith tradition or set of beliefs to justify one’s presence there. Libraries are sanctuaries that require no subscription to a particular belief system other than the public good and the exercise of freedom– to rest, to read, to explore, to edify and entertain, to find a center at the whirlwind of society.
What is beautiful about this is that the people who are stigmatized for their homelessness, and stereotyped as wastrels, are shown here to be often intelligent and educated people who have fallen on hard times, but still the love of books and reading stays with them.
It’s so easy to overlook and ignore the homeless, the poor, the non-mainstream people in the periphery of our lives. This story and these images are a wonderful reminder to open our eyes and our hearts to the people we see and meet that don’t have as much “property”/stuff as we do.
(The library) became my home away from home, and I could identify with the many homeless who came there to read, in companionship with others, where talking and intimate sharing was not required to feel human, a sense of “belonging”.
Also worth reading, on the same topic, this essay posted in Fresno’s Zócalo Public Square.
The Hunts Point Library, which is part of the New York Public Library system, is a lifeline in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. It is where homeless people check out apartment listings, the unemployed fine-tune their résumés, and children get free tutoring while their parents master new skills. But increasingly, the library and others in the city have been unable to meet the growing needs of their patrons, or even to offer as many programs and services as other branches, because they are constrained by aging buildings in need of renovation.
After years of steep budget cuts under the Bloomberg administration, the city’s libraries have been regaining ground under Mayor Bill de Blasio. In his first year in office, Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, increased operating funds for libraries by $22 million, to $323 million, though library officials noted that only $10 million of that was used directly for services to the public (the rest covered back pay for library workers* and other costs related to a city-negotiated union agreement).
The librarians I follow on different social media platforms (such as the lovely SuperLibrarian Wendy) have long shared their struggle to provide the full range of services public libraries are supposed to, while dealing with ever shrinking budgets–all budgets. For acquisitions, salaries, maintenance, outreach programs, etc.
There are, unfortunately, many taxpayers who do not understand–or even see–the very real need for libraries. Interestingly, some of the entities who perceive libraries as both unnecessary and business competitors are…publishers. Most particularly, traditional publishers.
Publishers Weekly posted an interesting piece on this issue in early April, making (as the title says), the case for the existence of libraries:
In the beginning, publishers and libraries were interdependent. When modern publishing houses emerged from printers in the late 19th century, public libraries in the U.S. and U.K. were often the first and only guaranteed customer for a title.
Even as late as 1950, libraries were indispensable customers for publishers. The entire output of the domestic publishing industry in that year was 11,000 titles, and the average branch of a public library purchased 14,000 titles annually. The most reliable market for many books was the 11,135 library branches operating then.
Things are different today. Publishers produced nearly half a million new ISBNs in 2013 (with self-publishers included, that total nearly doubles), though increasingly cash-strapped libraries are purchasing fewer titles. According to industry stats, the library market now represents just over 1.3% of publishers’ trade sales.
I was born and grew up in a country where public libraries were few and far between, and so underfunded as to be relatively useless (I understand the situation has changed substantially for the better in the past thirty years). As someone who came to the United States as an adult with young children and limited resources, public libraries have always been magical places where knowledge and books and help are available, without charge, to everyone.
May they long thrive.
Would you care to share your own experiences with libraries?
* emphasis mine