Libraries: the last bastions of equality

4 Jun

(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.

And this:

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.

And this:

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.

And this:

(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.

Both of these pieces provide sharp contrast to this article on the New York Times describing the dire circumstances of one of the largest library systems in the country.

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?

On that note, I leave you with the link to OpenLibrary, a digital, open, editable library catalog, part of the marvelous and non-profit Internet Archive (aka, The Wayback Machine)

* emphasis mine

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5 Responses to “Libraries: the last bastions of equality”

  1. Erin S. Burns 04/06/2015 at 10:54 AM #

    I love libraries. I lived my teenage years in them, walking to it after school and waiting for my father to pick me up after he got off work. I visited thousands of lands from one small corner of that library.

    And I adore OpenLibrabry and sincerely hope no one puts the ban hammer down on it.

    As a related note, I have just discovered that and Texas resident can get a library card for the Houston Public Library. That is an enormous library system so I look forward to getting my card and checking it out.

  2. SuperWendy 06/06/2015 at 5:46 PM #

    I do think things are marginally better in the libraries/publisher relationship arena. I still think we have light-years to go – but…..it’s better. Marginally. Baby steps. It’s a side-effect I’m seeing from Borders going belly-up, B&N being on life support, and retail spaces for books in general eroding away at an exponential rate. Not every town has a bookstore (be it big box or independent) – but generally speaking, every town does have a library. Chances are a grossly underfunded one – but hey – the library! Also at a time when most publishers are still treating ebooks like the proverbial bogeyman – libraries still buy a lot of print. Tons of it in fact. We’re buying digital too – but as demands for different formats have increased – our budgets have not. So not only is print grossly underfunded, but digital is as well – and hey Ms. Librarian why is the WiFi here so crappy and slow?

    And don’t even get me started on how libraries are left holding the proverbial bag as access to social services has dwindled down to a trickle. This comment is already too long.

    I think I’ve stated this somewhere on your blog before, but you know what really made me love my job? I mean, really understand and LOVE my job? Working at a library in an area with a very large immigrant population. God bless Americans, the concept of a free public library is one we’re used to. We take it for granted. Libraries certainly predate the United States, but the concept of a publicly funded, open to everyone in the community, free public library is VERY American. Explaining to someone new to the country how the public library works? It’s like you’ve literally just given them the keys to the kingdom. I try to hold on to moments like that as I’m putting on my hip-waders to trudge through a tsunami of BS.

    • Erin S. Burns 06/06/2015 at 5:56 PM #

      I’m not an immigrant, but I grew up way outside of town, and I still remember that first day we went to the library, the shock and awe when Mrs. Kuens explained I could pick any book(s), up to five of them at a time, and take them home to read for two weeks. And that I could just hang out there whether I wanted. Simply amazing. And even in that small, highly religious town, no judgements from her on what I picked, no lectures or fisheyes, no redirecting to the “appropriate” sections, no phone calls to my mother. Just a friendly reminder that I could come to her if I had questions about what I was reading.

      • azteclady 06/06/2015 at 6:04 PM #

        And while not every librarian does this–because they are still human–this is what makes public libraries in the US so amazing.

    • azteclady 06/06/2015 at 6:03 PM #

      the concept of a publicly funded, open to everyone in the community, free public library is VERY American. Explaining to someone new to the country how the public library works? It’s like you’ve literally just given them the keys to the kingdom.

      Holy shit, THIS, yes.

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