Barbara Fister at Inside HigherEd: “Of all of our cultural institutions, the public library is remarkable. There are few tax-supported services that are used by people of all ages, classes, races, and religions. I can’t think of any public institutions (except perhaps parks) that are as well-loved and widely used as libraries. Nobody has suggested that tax dollars be used for vouchers to support the development of private libraries or that we shouldn’t trust those “government” libraries. Even though the recession following the 2008 crash has led to reduced staff and hours in American libraries, threats of closure are generally met with vigorous community resistance. Visits and check-outs are up significantly over the past ten years, though it has decreased a bit in recent years. Reduced funding seems to be a factor, though the high point was 2009; library use parallels unemployment figures – low unemployment often means fewer people use public libraries. A for-profit company that claims to run libraries more cheaply than local governments currently has contracts to manage only sixteen of over 9,000 public library systems in the U.S. Few public institutions have been so impervious to privatization.
I find it intriguing that the American public library grew out of an era that has many similarities to this one – the last quarter of the 19th century, when large corporations owned by the super-rich had gained the power to shape society and fundamentally change the lives of ordinary people. It was also a time of new communication technologies, novel industrial processes, and data-driven management methods that treated workers as interchangeable cogs in a Tayloristic, efficient machine. Stuff got cheaper and more abundant, but wages fell and employment was precarious, with mass layoffs common. The financial sector was behaving badly, too, leading to cyclical panics and depressions. The gap between rich and poor grew, with unprecedented levels of wealth concentrated among a tiny percentage of the population. It all sounds strangely familiar.
The changes weren’t all economic. A wave of immigration, largely from southern and eastern Europe and from the Far East before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, changed national demographics. Teddy Roosevelt warned of “race suicide,” urging white protestant women to reproduce at the same rate as other groups to make America Anglo-Saxon again. The hard-won rights of emancipated African Americans were systematically rolled back through voter suppression, widespread acts of terror, and the enactment of Jim Crow laws. Indigenous people faced broken treaties, seized land, military suppression, and forced assimilation.
How interesting that it was during this turbulent time of change when the grand idea of the American public library – a publicly-supported cultural institution that would be open to all members of the community for their enjoyment and education – emerged….(More)”.