Reconsidering the Public Library Closures Narrative

From the Cites & Insights April 2012 entitled “Public Library Closures:
On Not Dropping Like Flies”:

“For those who don’t have the patience for a long, rambling essay with lots of background and detail, here’s the tip of the pyramid:

As far as I can tell, at most seventeen public libraries within the United States closed in 2008 or 2009 and have apparently not reopened as of March 2012. That’s 17 out of 9,299 (in 2009) or 9,284 (in 2008) or 0.2%. […]

Why does this matter? I’ll get to that—and to why these figures may be different than some you’ve heard, read or assumed. The answer is not that I’m trying to make everything in public libraryland seem rosy. It is that I believe it behooves librarians to know what they’re talking about—that even more than in most fields, they have a responsibility to know the facts behind their assertions.” [emphasis mine]

It’s a long but well researched piece by Walt Crawford illustrating how the illusion of public libraries closing does not match with reality. Yes, budgets are down, branches are being closed, services and hours and staff are being cut, but the number of libraries actually being closed is extremely small. Some of the rhetoric (and I’m quite sure I’m guilty of it myself) around library closings works to invoke people’s emotional response and play on the public’s fear and apprehensions. That isn’t a card that can be constantly played without being called out on it.

Also, I think blaring a constant state of distress can lead to advocacy issue fatigue; it makes libraries sounds like the constant victim of a political Snidely Whiplash, perpetually finding ourselves tied down to the budget train tracks. “Save Our Library” cannot be the constant and knee jerk battle cry to all budget announcements; a little more assessment and impact needs to be determined before warming up those war drums.

I’m not without sympathy for that 0.2% of communities that no longer have libraries, but building a overarching and rampant narrative out of that seems a bit intellectually dishonest.

(h/t: LISNews)

10 thoughts on “Reconsidering the Public Library Closures Narrative

  1. I work with library stats a lot, and I find it maddening when the drumbeat is always that libraries are in dire peril when the numbers don’t necessarily bear that out. As you point out, it’s intellectually dishonest. Not just that, but it makes us sound pathetic. Libraries have some serious challenges, and I have days that I doubt my chosen career path. But I don’t think it’s helpful to overblow the situation or draw conclusions that the data and research don’t support.

  2. Hmmmm…very interesting. I know I have been guilty of using this narrative myself. I am going to try to be more mindful of what I say from now on. Not only is the closures narrative apparently inaccurate, overarching, and intellectually dishonest, but can you say, “self-fulfilling prophecy?” Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

  3. I can’t speak for the situation in the US, but in the UK it is fairly similar in that not many libraries have actually closed yet. BUT. The issue here is far greater than just closures. Libraries here are being passed onto volunteers to run (it would probably be fairer to say they are being forced to run them as it is either they run them or they are closed) or they are being mooted for privatisation. Sure, neither of these equals a closure, but the former is only marginally better and the latter raises a whole host of other issues.

    I think it is right to be cautious about being alarmist, but also think there is a need to be aware that the issue is much bigger than just x number of libraries closing. That is only the tip of the iceberg.

  4. It’s also a case of how the issues are filtered through the media – reporters find it far easier to distill it down to ‘closures’ as the word with the most immediate drama and impact when actually the issues are far more complex and insidious – reduced opening hours, redundancies, misuse of volunteers etc. There’s the theory that all these issues will inevitably lead to closure when the services are run into the ground, but that’s long-term, and I think more should be done (by the media) to represent the issues effectively.

  5. I’d reiterate Ian’s point – in the UK ‘closure’ figures are being offset by volunteer or ‘community’ efforts with varying amounts of support from public money and local government. In my view when a library moves to being only available on a volunteer basis the ‘public library’ has closed. However, those defending the ‘closures’ will argue that the library has not closed but is now a community initiative.

    If we go along with the narrative that these are not closures I think we do a disservice to the community that is being served – they have had to step in where the public library system has failed them.

  6. I’d reiterate Ian’s point – in the UK ‘closure’ figures are being offset by volunteer or ‘community’ efforts with varying amounts of support from public money and local government. In my view when a library moves to being only available on a volunteer basis the ‘public library’ has closed. However, those defending the ‘closures’ will argue that the library has not closed but is now a community initiative.

    If we go along with the narrative that these are not closures I think we do a disservice to the community that is being served – they have had to step in where the public library system has failed them.

  7. This is a tough call.

    It is intellectually dishonest to promote an idea when it is not factually true.

    From the cited article: “What’s consistently true: The news of threatened or actual closure travels far faster and more broadly than the news of reopening or salvation.”

    The library closings narrative seems more of a distortion and conflation of facts than an intentional deception. Perhaps is more along the lines of being intellectual lazy than dishonest, but this is also seems to be fueled by the media outside of library world.

    It is hard to know if the constant beating of the drum is keeping things from getting bad, or if like you say, leading to fatigue…or both for that matter.

    I think we could all agree, having clear and accurate data available would make commenting and reporting on the matter less distorted.

  8. I’ve been thinking about the same thing a lot lately. My recent lobby/advocacy efforts have focused more on showcasing how libraries make life better/are vital & relevant, rather than dire calls for saving libraries. In most cases, it seems, we need to focus on making sure libraries thrive, rather than merely survive.

  9. Totally agree with you on this one, Andy. I felt the same way when I saw the article in Library Journal saying that 88% of library referenda were approved by voters last year (http://bit.ly/HHBecM). It’s not an overly optimistic article, but it tells me that most people in most places support their libraries — An important fact to remember in light of the barrage of three-alarm news stories.

  10. Pingback: New How many US public libraries have actually closed?” – Stephen's Lighthouse

Share your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s