I remember hearing an irate caller on talkback a few years back complaining about the free wi-fi at her local library. She wasn’t complaining about the quality of the wi-fi so much as about the fact that it existed. “All you want to do is sit down and read a book and some foreigner is always there talking loudly into the internet!”. Ignorance aside, she raised an interesting point. Was the library meant for her – the quiet pensioner-ratepayer – or for her arch-nemesis ‘the foreigner’?
Somebody who directly examined the question of the need for public libraries was Andrew Carnegie. He provided a huge amount of money for the establishment of public libraries right across the world. In fact, many of the public libraries we have today in Oceania are descendants of the original Carnegie libraries and came with strict conditions that aimed to keep them in government hands. Carnegie would only invest in building the libraries if the municipal government agreed to manage its library and annually contribute 10% of the cost of the building to its upkeep. He preferred governments own the libraries – as opposed to they be bequested to a public fund – because he believed private institutions could easily fall victim to the control of special interest groups and these cliques would not manage libraries for the benefit of the community at large.
The irate talkback caller quoted at the beginning of this post no doubt thinks that Carnegie’s dream isn’t working out too well (what with an elite clique of foreign internet talkers having taken over the library and all). But if libraries didn’t have the internet I’m guessing many of them would be receiving complaints from other communities about how knowledge is about a lot more than just providing access to books (along with some condescending claptrap about how books are irrelevant because all its information becomes outdated minutes after it is printed). Then there are those who express surprise that some libraries use ‘taxpayer/ratepayer’ money to stock copies of premium magazines like Vanity Fair when only hobos use the library (apparently there is more suitable hobo material out there).
Oddly, the biggest threat to the concept of the public library (the library managed in the best interests of the community) in the modern age, appears to be the community itself. Or rather, the fact that our different communities seem convinced that public libraries are being managed for the benefit of somebody else’s clique. The ‘taxpayer/ratepayer’ community (better known as the community that – often incorrectly – perceives itself as being the only ones that fund government) perceives libraries as being funded for the benefit of the disadvantaged, the ‘disadvantaged’ view libraries as being funded for intellectuals (but featuring services that they get to take advantage of every once in a while), intellectuals view libraries as being historical archives that provide books with big letters for the elderly, the elderly think they’re being managed for the benefit of foreigners, and foreigners are just glad they don’t get pinged for talking loudly into the internet.
The community as a whole does not have a real stake in the library (not in the way that Carnegie envisioned anyway). And if we’re judging community sentiment by the actions of their elected representatives then it would appear that the community does not seem particularly interested in keeping its stakes in its libraries either. Everywhere there are stories of cutbacks, or rumours of city/state/national governments that are considering them on behalf of taxpayers and ratepayers (odd, because I’m willing to bet that if you actually gathered the top 10 ratepayers/taxpayers in any given area together, the usage of funds for public libraries would likely not be anywhere on their list of gripes).
The reasons for all of this then, are nothing to do with the Kindle, declining attention spans, or the rise of the internet. It’s because there is no real sense of a combined ‘community’ anywhere in society anymore. Nowhere in the community is there a sense that these libraries should be managed for the community as whole – as opposed to just ‘our’ community – because the concept of a combined community is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. In fact the word ‘community’ is becoming a catch-all term for the poor person a couple of suburbs across from us. Those who find themselves in power can thus either end up finding libraries extremely valuable (because they identify themselves as having been elected by ‘the community’), or not valuable at all (because they identify ‘the community’ as being a whole lot of people who aren’t them or their friends).
Public libraries, contrary to popular perception, are actually doing a pretty good job of providing a wide range of products that have the potential to appeal to the whole community. The problem is, huge swathes of the community now perceive libraries as alien institutions and have decided to not even pay attention to their product catalogue. In that way, there are a lot of us acting like the old lady moaning about the noise that foreigner on Skype is making. Like her, we think libraries shouldn’t be for those people but for our people.
Either that or we’re not concerned about the libraries at all. After all, many of us have decided that public libraries should only be for other people anyway – and that, I think, is the bigger tragedy.