Friday, October 31, 2014

Our Public Libraries Need A New Deal

"We need to fight the privatization of the public library while at the same time defending and nourishing our existing libraries."

--David Morris, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, "All Hail the PUBLIC Library," 2011

(A sign in Hampshire County, West Virginia, attempts to drum up support for the funding of threatened public libraries. Photo by Brent McKee, October, 2014.)

All across America, our public libraries are in danger. They face the same challenges faced by every other publicly-funded institution designed for the common good: Funding shortfalls and privatization threats. Or, to put it another way, the super-wealthy don't feel like paying any more taxes--even as they gobble up more and more of our nation's wealth--and Corporate America wants to take over our public libraries so it can make a profit by increasing fees, reducing services, and slashing workers' wages, benefits, and retirement security. It's the corporate privatization strategy that we've become very familiar with; the strategy that's been destroying the American Dream for many years now; the strategy that says pretty things in the beginning--like "innovation!" and "entrepreneurship!"--and then slowly but surely scales back services and/or hurts middle-class workers for the sake of profit.

(For two interesting articles, see "Anger as a Private Company Takes Over Libraries" and "Millington library wants to end contract with private operator")

(WPA poster, image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

In 2008, the Fort Worth Public Library took the anti-public library trend in an interesting direction by declaring the word "public" to be a dirty word. In a strange media release, we learned the following: "The word 'public' has been removed from the name of the Fort Worth Library. Why? Simply put, to keep up with the times. In today’s day and age, the word 'public' implies a place that, at one time, might have been viewed as institutional and restrictive. All are welcome at the Fort Worth Library. By removing one word with a potentially negative connotation, the Library aims to appear more welcoming and accessible to all." 

It's not entirely clear what this nonsensical statement means, but they appear to be saying that the word "public" is too governmental ("institutional") and therefore if you're not a bureaucrat or a socialist, you wouldn't be welcome ("restrictive"). So, they've taken out the "restrictive," socialist (!) word. That's about the only explanation I can think of, because "public" means "all"; how the Fort Worth Library came to redefine it as "restrictive" I do not know.

(Ironically, the Oxford Dictionary defines public as: "Open to or shared by all the people of an area or country: 'a public library'")

(In this photograph, formerly unemployed Americans--now working in the New Deal's Civil Works Administration--are on a library construction project on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, circa 1933-34. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

These bizarre trends--privatizing public libraries and redefining the word "public" to mean "restrictive"--are indicators that our libraries need a New Deal. Indeed, rather than straining logic and changing the meaning of words (in a desperate attempt to protect the tax rates of the super-wealthy) New Deal policymakers created work & construction programs that built more libraries, repaired existing libraries, staffed libraries, and even delivered books--many times by horseback--to Americans who could not reach the library. Why? Because they felt that the public good (oops, forgive my foul language there) was slightly more important than the ability of a super-rich American to buy a 24 karat gold bathtub or a basketball court for yacht #8.

No comments:

Post a Comment