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.

5 thoughts on “Fisking How “Libraries Are Failing America”

  1. “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.”

    Of course, with the rapid decline of the middle class, maybe the middle class are the ones who needs us right now BEFORE they fall into poverty.

  2. Also, who put this guy in charge of what I want to read and what I want to share? He’s like a guy collecting money for pagan babies, certain he knows exactly what things that money should be used for, and they should be Improving things – but never fun, oh no. Fun is just wicked. And it belongs to the marketplace!

  3. He clearly hasn’t been to my county, which has an incredibly diverse population and is fairly poor in a state with one of the wealthiest counties in the country. My libraries are slammed – super busy, a lot of the time. Children doing homework, finding fun reading. Adults preparing for GEDs, applying for jobs, learning English, preparing for LPN and other occupational licensing exams….

  4. There’s an excellent response to the post in the comment section. The permalink didn’t work, so I reprinted here:

    From Mike Nyerges:

    Mr Harsanyi has every right to criticize public libraries and he may even be among those who step up to the microphone in his community to challenge the public support his library receives. But the tradition of trusting to the majority of voters to provide for their shared and common good, is still, thank God, alive and well at the local level.

    Public libraries are all about local access to library resources and this includes far more than books or videos. Libraries also provide access to WiFi, broadband and computers, which our neighbors who haven’t the means to provide these for themselves appreciate and use extensively. Many households with low-incomes rely on public broadband and WiFi to access the internet. Over 64% of the public libraries in the U.S. report that they provide the only public Internet access in their communities. Given the breath and scope of this medium in our daily lives, it’s hard to minimize the importance of this access.

    As for the idea that the private sector will, in particular, deliver books cheaper and more efficiently, good luck with that. As a 30-year library veteran, and having served as a public library director for many years, few are the public’s institutions that provide more services for fewer dollars than your local community library. Also, there are plenty of private interests, including content creators and intellectual property rights holders, with sharp elbows and an interest in having a say in how such services might be delivered and priced. It’s an easy mistake to think that because prices for digital content are less than their cousins in print, that they will also be nearly free. Although content is available in super abundance, dollars are not. Public libraries will continue to provide access to resources that the vast majority of us will be unable to afford.

    Also, I am completely mystified how Mr Harsanyi concludes that the group, “Library Lovers,” which includes households with incomes of $50,000 and represents 10% of American Adults are “freeloaders,” (not to mention the next 20% of adults strongly engaged in libraries–Information Omnivores–with household incomes averaging $75,000). A more reasonable conclusion would be that these are the very households paying for our libraries.

    I am well acquainted with the failings and successes, criticisms and praises, of public libraries. The point Mr Harsanyi makes about how some libraries may be failing to meet their communities’ educational expectations is not without merit. Like any human enterprise, private and public, (let me repeat that, private and public), public libraries are not without their shortcomings; all are works-in-progress. Still, public libraries serve their communities as important social anchors and provide opportunities for education and self-improvement that our communities still value.

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