Here in Oakland, a citywide budget shortfall is hitting our libraries in ways that are tough to read about; 90 percent staffing cuts and full floor closures at main locations, and the complete shuttering of community branches, including the Cesar Chavez branch, the Chinatown branch, and the African American Museum & Library of Oakland. Unless drastic measures are taken, Oakland’s first Asian-American mayor will preside over a city with a Chinese collection behind locked doors.
So begins an article by Channing Kennedy at Colorlines.com, which boldly declares Libraries Are Part of the Safety Net--No wonder Government Hate Them.
But wait, it gets worse:
As cities across the nation yank funding from their school and public libraries to fill budget gaps, there’s been chatter of how the internet is killing libraries — and, perhaps, making them irrelevant. This doesn’t sit right with me, not just for the obvious point that the internet and a library are two very different things, but for the implication that the internet is the library’s first natural predator. Really?
No, not really, and not ever. As Kennedy's primary source (her mother, with 20+ years of librarianship under her belt) explains it, the internet was merely the last nail in the coffin for a type of public facility that rural America in the 1970s and 1980s really didn't get or even want:
This is the same city government that let the employees at Planned Parenthood’s free health clinic be harassed out of town, because the local doctors said that they were losing business. This was rural Nebraska in the Reagan years, and they didn’t understand anything that didn’t make money — and honestly, a library is a pretty socialist enterprise.
And from what I saw, money was what brought down libraries. That was the big shift in the late 1970s. Libraries couldn’t depend on taxes, and had to make themselves look viable to regional funding agencies that didn’t know anything about their communities. They had to compete with each other for grant money for things they didn’t want to do, just to keep their doors open. Cities would base librarian salaries on state averages, which meant that a retired woman taking minimum wage to save funds was unintentionally setting the same salary for me, a single mom with student loans.
The employees and the patrons lost their say, and as a result, libraries changed; either they became babysitters, competing for funds by doing whatever some manager at a funding agency thought best, or they became warehouses with a scanner and a security guard. And this was all well underway long before the internet.
I love that line about reading being a socialist enterprise. It's politically incorrect to say so at the moment, but as I've written before, socialism, when it's not being derided by salaried pundits, refers to a system of distribution that necessarily includes everyone. You, me, our neighbors, our families, and people we've never met nor particularly care to. Everyone. It says only that every human being deserves and is entitled to a certain level of access to civilization: food, shelter, meaningful work, education. It's not a matter of equal salaries for everyone so much as a matter of equal access to the bare minimum.
In our case, people who use libraries are entitled to a safe space to educate themselves and those they care about: children, parents, friends, neighbors, and people they have never met nor particularly care to:
Libraries don’t need to be daycare centers to have community value, to be part of the safety net. Libraries are already, naturally, a part of the safety net, because they empower their community with equitable access to knowledge. And libraries can’t do that without librarians — someone who knows their collection, who knows their patrons, who has the right training and the right salary. Someone who has compassion, and the financial and social resources to act on that compassion without losing their mind.
Anything else places us all at the mercy of the greedy bastards who currently constrain our lives.