The Free Public Library in America:
“For Robert Frost, home was the place ‘where, when you have to go, they have to take you in.’ For me, the library is the place that wants to take you in—where the weary find rest and the restless find stimulation; where ideas come alive, discoveries are made, where imaginations take flight; and, too, where jobs are located, prices determined, trips planned, languages learned; where friends gather and strangers meet.”
I wrote that ode to the free public library, to the place where the community creates its home. I believe every word. I don’t think I’m alone in my view.
And yet, our free public libraries and our free access to books and all that libraries provide in our communities today, are endangered. In nearly every state they have suffered budget cuts. In New Jersey, property re-evaluations have reduced the tax base in municipalities and thus local support to public libraries has been declining for several years. The sitting governor has cut funds to public libraries across the board for several years as well. (Even as he boasts that the “climate” has improved sufficiently to warrant a tax cut!)
Many libraries across the country have reduced hours and services; others have sold off books. Some libraries have merged; others, in desperation—or joining the anti-government services crowd–have privatized.
Two years ago, the American Library Association issued a task force report called “Keeping Public Libraries Public.” It’s well worth a read.
In the press to find resources, local governments have turned to privatizing. A company based in Maryland, for example, Library Systems and Services — read the website and weep–has taken over public libraries in ailing cities in California, Oregon, Tennessee and Texas, becoming the country’s fifth-largest library system. And, lately, the company has moved to take over libraries in cities that are not financially stressed, in some cases to save funds (and to terminate union contracts). But not without strong community resistance.
There is a facebook page: Keep Our Libraries Free.
The Public Interest Research Group in California, too, has stood up to and blocked a number of schemes to sell public assets to private companies — deals that all too often actually raise costs — including public libraries and state buildings.
And, not to put too fine a point on it, any company that seeks to become a community’s library would have to do a whole lot better than aspiring to this goal, as Library Systems and Services states on its website: “to provide the highest quality services and professional expertise possible for the customers’ investment.”
Seriously? Well, maybe, but fortunately, no librarian I know talks like that.
“In an age of library downsizing, a nonprofit in Wisconsin makes Little Free Libraries, wooden boxes not much bigger than a mailbox, to put up in neighborhoods, for book swapping. They’re inspired. But they’re not buildings; they’re boxes.”
Jill LePore is right on track. So is Keith Michal Fiels, former head of the state library system in Massachusetts. Writing in The Atlantic, “Why We Need Public Libraries, More Than Ever,” Fiels resists charging user fees, among other ‘options’ under consideration. As he points out, every national survey shows that the public considers public libraries the most effectively run of all municipal services.
We need to join LePore and Fiels and the people who support free public libraries everywhere to acknowledge this essential truth (as Fiels puts it):
“Sure, the library is an old fashioned concept. So is democracy. So is equal opportunity.”
Let’s act to protect our free public libraries, the buildings, the services, and the people who are dedicated, even devoted, to serving in them. Community treasures must be acknowledged and sustained.