There’s something pretty amazing about the idea of a public library. It’s the one place where everyone in the community is welcomed – all ages, all races, all religions, all political persuasions. It’s a place where you can borrow things for free and nobody sneers at your taste or uses marketing techniques to persuade you to choose differently. It’s a place where you can hang out for hours without having to buy coffee to justify the space you’re taking up. It doesn’t invade your privacy in order to “improve the user experience.” It’s a place that, according to Pew Research, has amazingly high approval ratings, rare among social institutions these days.
This is not the case for other public things. Our public schools system has been infused with demands for school choice, punished for falling behind in test scores, and is often considered unfit for children by those who can afford a private education. Publicly-supported higher education is more tuition-dependent now rather than being a public investment, and as funding dries up, higher ed seems to be contributing to inequality, not reducing it.
In an age of austerity, how do public libraries get away with it? Even among fiscal conservatives, it’s hard to find people who are dead-set against what Dennis Baron, with tongue in cheek, once called “socialized literacy.”
Though libraries are facing cuts in staff, operating hours, and materials budgets, few American libraries actually close their doors. When closure is threatened, it typically makes the news and supporters rally. That news coverage, coupled with the occasional clickbait opinion piece that libraries aren’t needed anymore because it’s all on the internet, has led people to think libraries are in trouble. Walt Crawford looked at the data a few years ago (he's very good at doing the numbers) and saw that the public libraries and branches actually increased between 1999 and 2009. A glance at the most recent IMLS report on public libraries shows that use of public libraries is up.
Alas, things are not so rosy in the land of Shakespeare. Last March, the BBC reported that 343 public libraries have closed in the U.K. and another 111 were scheduled to be closed this year. That’s about 15 percent of all public libraries in the UK. Nearly 300 libraries were handed over to community groups to sustain or were outsourced to commercial management. UK libraries have been forced to lay off a quarter of their staff because of budget cuts. Volunteers have been cajoled to fill in gaps. As the opening hours and book budgets have been cut, the number of visits to libraries and books borrowed has declined, which gives library opponents further justification for defunding libraries.
Why is this happening? Is the country so broke it can’t afford to have a culture anymore? Is literacy a luxury good?
On November 5th British citizens are protesting these closures along with similar threats to museums. If I were there, I’d be joining the demonstration. Since I’m not, all I can lend is moral support from this side of the pond. Closing libraries is a form of austerity none of us can afford.