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Outrage: our libraries are not failing us, we are failing them

While the role of the library has evolved to provide services from internet access to journalism programmes, countless libraries still face closure, as civic leaders fail to recognise the critical social, intellectual, cultural, and economic roles they play 

The Brooklyn Public Library’s collection comprises 13 million books, but they constitute just one of countless attractions that, in 2017, drew 8.1 million people to its main site and 59 neighbourhood branches. Around a million of these visitors attended its 69,000 free programmes, and residents with no internet at home depended on it for a reliable connection. 

The library welcomes immigrants, the lonely, and the homeless; it’s a vital social infrastructure. BPL also taps into the intellectual resources and technical skills of local scholars, artists and designers. Its business services kickstart local entrepreneurs, while the journalism programmes for young adults and countless tech classes transform media-consumers of all ages into media-makers.

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Source: David Hurn / Magnum Photos

The services and programmes of the library often fill in where other public institutions fall short. The lonely, the homeless, the children whose single parents are working two jobs to pay rent: all are welcomed. This is evident in the library of the House of Culture in Stockholm, where visitors can be seen relaxing

BPL achieves this despite having a $300m capital needs gap. Still, compared with other institutions, it’s lucky. In the US, libraries depend primarily on local funding, with state and federal governments kicking in just a little. New York City’s current administration has prioritised its libraries though and, while the funding is never enough to cover all of its capital needs and service aspirations, and patrons are always petitioning for longer opening hours, it’s at least enough to allow BPL to build some new branches and renovate existing ones. That said, there are still plenty of facilities with leaky roofs, broken HVAC systems and too few power outlets for a charge-needy public. 

‘Neglect of libraries could only exacerbate our most vexing social problems and deepen the wedges between our democratic publics’

Meanwhile, other libraries, with less supportive local governments, face perpetual disrepair, limited opening hours, shrinking collections and closure. The rise of conservative governments worldwide has led to politically motivated austerity measures and brought about the reallocation of funds from culture and education to defence. From Oregon in the US to Derbyshire in the UK, libraries are closing. 

Since 2010, some 500 libraries have been shut across Great Britain, and many cities and towns rely on volunteers to keep their institutions open. Such charity might represent the realisation of the Big Society, an empowered, beneficent public that obviates the need for ‘big government’. But it also conceals the government’s failure to provide critical social services for its most vulnerable citizens – services no volunteer is qualified to provide. And it signals the state’s abandonment of an institution that has historically represented society’s cultural, rather than commercial, assets. It marks the renunciation of public spaces where communities gather freely and inclusively to practise and embody public culture. Our ruling parties’ prioritisation of stock markets, border walls and fighter jets over social infrastructures reveals their fundamental values. 

Neglect of libraries, in particular, could only exacerbate our most vexing social problems and deepen the wedges between our democratic publics. Some of the most potent of those fracturing forces are (dis)informational: troll-ridden social media, fearmongering partisan news, disingenuous government spokespeople and pathos-driven, epistemologically empty heads of state. What we need are tools and platforms (virtual and physical) to help us collectively reassess the knowledge resources and public spheres so fundamental to an informed citizenry. What we need are inclusive forums where we can learn to assess credibility and veracity and value, and where we can engage with ideas other than our own. What I’m describing are our libraries, with their free access to information resources, digital literacy programmes and open forums for discussion. 

‘We have mistakenly equated the library with the smart phone’

Regrettably, in some parts of the world with great public-library legacies, governments have renounced their historical sense of obligation to support them. This is perplexing when we see other regions without a strong library tradition – say, China and the Middle East – where new libraries are burgeoning. Yet even in the Carnegie empire, we still find plenty of success stories, like Brooklyn, Calgary and Portland. If all libraries were well funded, staffed, stocked and maintained, they’d probably be thriving, too.   

This state of affairs fills me with pity, disappointment and hope. Yet what incites outrage is when I’m told the library is in decline, and I’m asked to lament that downfall, as I was for this magazine. Our libraries aren’t declining. They’re not failing us. We’re failing them. In so many communities, civic leaders fail to recognise the critical social, intellectual, cultural and economic roles they do, or could, play – for both society’s ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. 

The cultivation of an educated public is a life-long communal responsibility. We have mistakenly equated the library with the smart phone, assuming that a hand-held gadget can perform all the functions – informational and social – of a place-based, humanistic organisation. And we presume that users – by reading user agreements, altering privacy settings on social media accounts and escaping their ‘filter bubbles’ on Facebook – can protect themselves from disinformation. This is not enough. Epistemic and cultural ‘warfare’ is bigger than each of us: institutional, national and geopolitical. It requires a public defence, perhaps one launched from the book stacks and circulation desk. 

So while our governments and corporations, planners and architects are busy building more smart cities and intelligent architectural systems, we’re neglecting the public intellect, whose devolution results in today’s rising populism and fascism. We’ve forgotten the wisdom embedded in those buildings for books. 

 This piece is featured in the AR December 2018/January 2019 Book issue – click here to purchase your copy today