Fisking How “Libraries Are Failing America”

Last week, a column by David Harsanyi entitled “Libraries Are Failing America” appeared in the online version of The Federalist. In this fair but meandering article, Mr. Harsanyi makes some good points about how libraries can do better as well as some wonderfully awful points about the modern library. Since his focus wanders around through the piece, I’m going to chop it up into sections.

A new Pew Study claims that libraries “loom large in the public imagination,” with 90 percent of Americans ages 16 and older saying that closing down their local libraries would have an impact on their community. The public may imagine that libraries are dynamic centers of learning and community, but the Pew data seems suggest that they’re mostly places where your prosperous neighbors borrow books and movies without having to directly pay for them. And as Pew points out, adults with “higher levels of education and household income are more likely to use public libraries” – and the more you use the library the more well-off you probably are.

“Library Lovers,” those designated as having the highest levels of engagement, only represent 10 percent of Americans. Among them, 66 percent are white, most of them college educated and living in households earning more than $50,000. Also, deep in the Pew poll we learn 58 percent of these highly engaged freeloaders say they borrowed more books than they bought last year, compared to 38 percent of the general population.

I have to admit I like the word “freeloaders”. It’s what are called “fighting words” in librarian circles, the kind of thing you say when you want to push the buttons of public librarians. (Also a button pusher: saying “libraries” when you mean “public libraries”. School, academic, and other types of librarians hate that.)

The trouble is that it denies the underlying notion of that the library is a community resource. Just like police, fire, highway crews, and other things that society pays for and doesn’t necessarily use (but are glad to have when they need them), the library is such a resource. It makes financial sense that people would pool their money in such a manner to share books, movies, magazines, and other media. Based on Walt Crawford’s data, the return on investment averages about 4:1 in which $4 services and materials are given for every $1 invested. If people could get such an average return from Wall Street, we’d all be dirty stinking rich.

But beyond an investment, consider a financial argument of the net savings to those families at a time when the number of Americans with savings is dropping. For example, let’s say a family of four pays $100 in library taxes and (following Walt’s number) borrows the equivalent of $400 worth of materials over the course of the year. Further, let’s stipulate that the parents save the difference ($300) in an investment that averages 4% growth (about double the interest rate of my savings account with my bank) per year for the next 20 years. Using this compound interest calculator, by the time their kids go to college their investment will be $9,948. While it’s not a “let’s retire” amount of money, it’s certainly not chump change either.

If you really think that spending $400 a year for things to buy versus $100 for things to borrow and using the remaining $300 for something else is a better option, then we’re going to have problems. (Note: If my financial calculations are off, please let me know in the comments.) The only remaining argument would be that it is better to own than to borrow and that’s a whole different ballgame.

Should a library be more concerned with offering a collection of resources for reference and educational purposes or should it be competing with Borders Barnes and Noble?  Because if a library is driven by market needs, we can do a better in the private sector (through a Netflix-type services, for instance);

Ah, Borders. The short version is that they were killed by Amazon along with outdated publishing business models combined with no entry into an eBook market. Public libraries are not competing on that level so it really isn’t a good comparison.

Also, Netflix-type services presupposes an internet connection either at the cell smart phone level and/or home service. We’ll get back to that later.

and if we’re aiming to make a cultural center where a diverse citizenry is excited about knowledge, we can still do a lot better. Right now libraries seem to offer a weird mix of what we don’t need and what we don’t want.

I’ve lived in four major metro areas in the past decade, and all the libraries I visited have catered to the whims of the public rather than functioning as a center that promotes literature and learning for the masses. Actually, books seem like a secondary business in many libraries. Like a lot of you, I consume extraordinary amounts of junk culture. The last time I went down to my local library, I could have borrowed a DVD copy of ‘This Is the End’ or ‘Taken 2′ (both of which I’d seen, and both which are available on Netflix or for $1.10 at a Redbox) or a book on CD of ’50 Shades of Grey,’ but I couldn’t find a decent book on the history of early Christianity.

This isn’t a libertarian critique or an elitist one, it’s simply an attempt to point out that libraries fail to fulfill their self-defined purpose.  The mission statement of The New York Public Library, for instance, says the organization’s charge “is to inspire lifelong learning, advance knowledge, and strengthen our communities.” Are libraries strengthening communities?

I remember a comment on a news article about a public library that said that all the library should offer is the classics (remember all those books you had to read in high school?) and other high minded literature. It represents an overly simplistic view of culture in which only “high minded culture” begets the like and “junk culture” creates the same. The truth is that they are more complicated and intertwined than what appears from cursory examination.

Consider Shakespeare, hailed as a cultural cornerstone of literature and drama subjects. At the time when it was written, the occupation of acting was remarkably low in the social order, frowned upon by the church and society. When Shakepeare’s plays were just starting to be performed, it was the “junk culture” of its time.  The rippling influence of that ‘junk culture’ would inspire performing artists and writers for generations.

“Junk culture” can be the inspiration for other, more “high minded” culture.  The author Stephen King spoke in an interview about the hard-boiled pulp paperbacks from his local drug store and the way they influenced his writing. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg created the Indiana Jones character from the matinee serials and pulp magazines of their youth. The musical style jazz was considered to be ‘junk culture’ in its heyday and it would become the basis for swing, blues, rock and roll, and other popular music styles.

Furthermore, the library has always had some sort of “junk culture” within its history. I can guarantee you that the some of the dime novels of the late 19th and early 20th century found their way to libraries shelves along with Emerson, Thoreau, and Dickens. The so-called “classics” of literature emerge over time, not at the moment they are selected for the shelf. As we say in the profession, we try to have something for everyone’s tastes.

Gracy Olmstead at the American Conservative makes some excellent observations:

Nonetheless, it seems that those using libraries are somewhat homogenous: they’re mostly wealthy, well-educated, and well-informed. Yet the library ought to reach a diverse population: it ought to offer resources to those from lower incomes, without many community connections, or to those lacking technological or informational resources. Yet many such individuals are the library’s rarest frequenters—or never use it at all.

I did like this point that Mr. Olmstead made. More on this later.

For a few, libraries offer technological resources that some may typically lack access. But like others who run other government institutions, library professionals seem to function under the mistaken notion that they oversee laboratories of innovation. If the library’s rarest frequenters are the ones we’d like to see in them the most, then libraries are failing. This is probably why we see constant mission creep. Take this statement from American Library Association President Barbara Stripling on the heels of the Pew poll release:

But we also know that one-third of all Americans still lack home broadband Internet, and a recent global survey finds U.S. adults lag behind many of their counterparts overseas in basic education skills. Our work is not done, and libraries will continue to innovate and meet evolving needs as new technologies and applications emerge. Libraries are transforming lives through education and help level the playing field for all.

No, they’re not. Not often. How innovative can a building filled with “new technologies” like “the Internet,” books and CDs be? My local library still has an entire row of books on cassette tapes for your enjoyment. Who are they catering to?

Last point first: I don’t have a good explanation as to why the library still has cassettes. I could guess, but that would be another hundred words I’d like to write about something else.

Mission creep happens in the library world because of the differing needs and demographics of the communities that we serve. GED programs, unemployment assistance, and job training programs may be the bread-and-butter of one library where another revolve around movie discussions, music performances, and author talks. Comparing libraries is a lot like comparing people and wondering why they aren’t the same race or gender or size. Communities can be similar, but they generally are not exactly alike. In that way, libraries find themselves involved in different roles than people “traditionally” think of when it comes to the library. Even that idea of “traditional” aspects gets some heated discussion within the library world.   

As for innovation, I have more of a philosophical and emotional argument to make. Innovation is not the result of spontaneous generation, but the product of the many varied influences that visit upon a person. It could family, friends, education, experiences, and culture. On that last aspect, culture, the library fits within that sphere. It’s about the exploration of personal interests, the freedom to think and ponder and wander, that is the kernel for such innovation. Creativity does not exist under factory conditions, but when the mind is free to roam. That is where the library fits in; and while there are few direct links between those two points, I would reckon it exists more often than people give credit.

“Information Omnivores,” one the groups Pew points to as having the highest engagement levels, also has high household income (35 percent in households earning $75,000 or more) and the highest technology use among any group polled. Almost half own a tablet and 68 percent own a “smartphone,” according to Pew. These are folks who are probably stream movies and music and read books on one device or another. Moreover, broadband access (over 100 million Americans have access and do not sign up) a rural American problem, and rural Americans have the lowest library attendance per capita.

The census says we have around 17,000 libraries in the United States (this doesn’t include school libraries).  These libraries spend much of their $11 billion yearly budgets subsidizing the entertainment needs of people who can afford to do help themselves. Some of us find comfort knowing that there are buildings in nearly every town filled with books. But if they’re not helping Americans who need it the most, what’s the point?

Here, Mr. Harsanyi, we find some agreement. There is a glaring disparity in broadband access in rural America. The private sector doesn’t have a financial interest in running fiber optic lines out to those places and so those communities are part of a slower, older information access model that includes DSL and dial-up (yes, that still exists.) By the way, the term you are looking for is “digital divide”. 

With that in mind, let’s skip to your concluding question.

The digital divide is not simply a rural issue, but an economic one. Take, for example, the city of Camden, NJ, arguably one of the poorest cities in the country. I’ll concede right now that the issues that face Camden are numerous and not something that any library could solve, but bear with me. In 2010, with the state sending less aid, it was announced that all three libraries would close. These budget cuts hit every department within the city: police, fire, ambulance, highway, etc. Eventually, the libraries would be taken over by the county library system and only one location closed.

Invariably, within these budget debates, the idea of funding the library over police or fire is brought up. How can you spend money on a library when the specter of crime looms over the city? I can understand a decision to fund more police and fire positions over libraries, but for me it becomes a case where people want opportunities and what they get instead is law enforcement. Police and fire are not trained, equipped, or able to offer education, GED help, job search assistance, or job training, the tools of opportunity in such areas. Even if major employers like Target or Wal-Mart moved into the area, police and fire do not offer the internet access required to apply for these jobs since they only accept online applications. (You should see some of those applications; they are never ending webforms with short timers.) While societal order is maintained, so also is the cycle of poverty within these areas.

Simply put, this is a gap that is not being filled by the philanthropic private sector. However, public libraries can and do fill that role. But that role requires funding in the form of taxes, the He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named of conservative politics. To reach these poor populations, libraries need funding that will enable them to provide the materials, services, and staff to reach into a community to help lift them beyond the shadow of poverty.

In this way, America has failed its libraries by not providing the necessary funding. I will concede that libraries are not a silver bullet for the digital divide, but they are a tool for combatting deficiencies in education, income, and equality that exist within America. They represent the ideal of the self-made individual who took the resources afforded to them and made something greater, something that Andrew Carnegie believed when he used his fortune to building hundreds of public libraries around the world.

The public library is failing in its mission to reach poor populations, but it is not a failure at the point of execution. It’s a failure to recognize and provide the support that it needs to reach those people who need it the most. Public libraries cannot exist on good will alone, but a financial commitment to the improvement of communities that need that extra help.

“Conscience Do Cost”

The Black Caucus of the American Library Association released a statement last week denouncing the ALA for not moving the 2016 Annual Conference out of Orlando, Florida in protest of the existing version of the “stand your ground” law and the resulting homicides that have raised that (ahem) defense. You can read their statement in full at their website as well as an update from the BCALA President regarding their press release. It’s the background material for the rest of this blog post.

One particular passage of the BCALA press release jumped out at me:

BCALA believes that ALA, which claims various commitments to diversity and tolerance, should have begun plans to find a new venue for ALA 2016 following the July 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman. BCALA must question ALA’s true commitment to diversity and racial tolerance when ALA, North America’s largest and strongest library association, still plans to hold its largest and most financially lucrative function in a state that has become Ground Zero in initiating weapons laws, as well as voting policies, that potentially put the rights and safety of African-Americans at risk. ALA annual conferences are generally well-documented and publicized, and BCALA fears that librarians, 20,000 strong, conducting business and spending money in Orlando will negate any claim that librarians have to being advocates of equality and social justice.

But the strength of this passage seems weakened by the subsequent update by BCALA President Jerome Offord, Jr.:

To be blatantly clear, BCALA did not and has not called for a boycott of the 2016 conference. I want to remind each of you to understand that your leaders were sensitive to the matter, while understanding the stance. Please do not allow others to use our concern as a way to divide and/or isolate BCALA, Inc., its members, and/or its leaders. Again, we did NOT call for a boycott.


Your leaders are aware that ALA, an organization that we all pay dues to, has a financial obligation and contract. We are aware that the possibility of moving the conference is near impossible. However, the impossibilities and challenges regarding the Orlando conference does not mean that we should or shall remain silent about an issue that impacts our communities and people we serve.

(Emphasis mine.)

As an outside observer (read: not an ALA member), I don’t have any skin in the game. But what I find so compelling within this issue is an larger looming question, how committed is the ALA to the politics of its principles and ideals? At first glance, the answer is when they have to get out their wallet.

To be fair, there are financial consequences for pulling out of a conference contract. I don’t know what they are but I would presume in the tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. But in reading some of the financial based points, it’s as if no one has ever broken a lease or ended a cell phone contract or withdrew from an agreement ever. Has no one ever paid a monetary penalty for making a change in their lives?

Contrary to what Mr. Offord has written, moving the conference is not “near[ly] impossible”. Contracts can be breached, other arrangements can be made, and the conference can go forward in a more suitable location. For all the talk I’ve heard from fellow librarians of “We are the ALA, we can be the change”, that spirit has evaporated in the face of “it would be a lot of work to do and would require some sacrifice on your part”. I would presume part of that sacrifice would be in the form of potential one time member fee to offset the breach expenses. Given the vocal opposition to membership increases, that would an interesting conversation to listen as to why people would not want to chip in to support a core value.

ALA is not a stranger to the race issue in its history. The 1936 ALA conference in the segregated city of Richmond made it an experience that was roundly limited to white participants. Inferior accommodations, separate seating areas, and exclusion from social events limited or denied participation from African American librarians.

“Even the most passive will confess that the conference got off to an unfortunate start. The interjection of face antagonism, however it may be ‘defended’ as being necessary or expedient, could have been avoided by the proper action, and was most certainly not calculated to win the admiration of those who desire to look upon the American library movement as a great force for the service of all mankind.” [1]

This is in sharp relief to how attitudes had changed by 1954 when segregated chapters were banned from participation within the organization. ALA has the capacity to take a stance here, so doesn’t it?

Part of the argument against moving the conference is the observation that some of the future venues are in states where gay marriage is illegal. While I can appreciate the point, I don’t find it compelling here. Growing public support as well as the key court cases have shifted the gay marriage issue to an inevitable conclusion of acceptance. It is true that this does not help couples right now who are denied the benefits of marriage even if they are legally wed in other states. But for me it falls short as a rebuttal since improving conditions for people of color doesn’t have the same cultural force behind it. There is no growing public support, legislative action, or court cases seeking to bring opportunities (social, economic, educational, or otherwise) to people of color, in particular to African American men. In any event, the presence of another injustice should not act as a pass for the venue; two negatives do not make a positive. Under such scrutiny, the gay marriage parallel doesn’t hold up.

The apparent fallback position from there is a shoulder shrug of “well, you can find something wrong with every state which means we couldn’t meet anywhere”. I will concede that there isn’t a “perfect” venue and that each state has its own prevailing brand of social injustice. But in this case and context, there are better options that can be taken in this timely manner. Orlando could still be a good conference venue in the future but there is importance of sending a message now. Granted, some of the concerning elements could change in the next two years (the law could be revised or repealed) but the timing here is everything.

For myself, this feels like the well tread territory of the profession doing things for the sake of convenience over principle and ideals. We enter into ridiculous contractual arrangements where we sign away control just so we can provide eBooks, journals, and other services rather than building our own infrastructure. The oft repeated library science graduate philosophical question revolves around the pros and cons of buying controversial material for our collection. While we give the pitch perfect answers of material inclusion over outside objections, the actual application of this question too often ends with avoiding material because we don’t want to be inconvenienced by the time and energy it would take to defend it. In putting our communities first, we cast aside ownership and development in favor of throwing money at what we can get right here and right now based on the fear of losing people’s attention. In our journey to make our mark in this modern digital age, we are selling our souls in little bits and pieces.

That’s how we erode our moral high ground when it comes to questions of information access and material availability. It’s the pragmatism of conflict avoidance gone amuck, good people acting in fear of the negative comment, letter, or editorial that will put the library in a “bad light”. We have an approval rating of over 90% and yet we hide from ourselves and our values. Not because we will be arrested, oppressed within our community, denied our freedom of expression, or suffer some other calamity, but because it’s too damn hard and too much damn work. The term “slacktivism” leaps to mind as it is just easier to pass a resolution in support of an issue but I don’t want to wrinkle my shirt by rolling up my sleeves.

It’s disappointing to watch well meaning people sit on their hands and run out the clock on taking action that lines up with their professional ideals and values. It’s sad to me that the Mr. Offord felt the need to clarify the statement to provide assurances that their members would still be encouraged to attend. The library is an institution that supports diversity through its service to all people; the ALA can and should do better on this situation.


[1] Jesse H. Shera, “Richmond and Beyond!” Wilson Bulletin for Librarians 10, no.10 (1936)

Note: The origin of the post title comes from an episode of The Wire.