Thanks to my colleagues on the ALA Think Tank (a Facebook group virtually connecting librarians), I came across an article this week from the culture section of The Federalist titled “Libraries Are Failing America: Why Are We Subsidizing the Entertainment Needs of the Middle Class?” written by David Harsanyi. I was so taken aback by his comments that I felt I needed to write a rebuttal of sorts.
In this article, Harsanyi calls on the most recent Pew study, citing its findings that 90 percent of Americans ages 16 and up maintain that the closure of their public library would have a large impact on their community. Additionally, adults with “higher levels of education and household income are more likely to use public libraries.”
The author suggests that “Library Lovers,” a term he uses almost derogatorily in his article, tend to be white, college educated, and living in households earning more than $50,000 per year. He then calls these people “freeloaders” as Pew research indicates that they borrowed more books than they purchased last year.
The most offensive assumption that Harsanyi makes is that public libraries simply “[cater] to the whims of the public rather than functioning as a center that promotes literature and learning for the masses.” Apparently, having popular DVDs and fiction on our shelves takes away from a collective culture of academia. He goes so far as to say that libraries “fail to fulfill their self-defined purpose” which is, by using the New York Public Library as an example, “to inspire lifelong learning, advance knowledge, and strengthen our communities.”
He quotes Gracy Olmstead of the American Conservative:
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.
He then asks:
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?
Finally, the author points out that the “information omnivores,” a term coined by the Pew Institute, are those who already own a smartphone and are likely streaming music and movies, and reading books on these devices. I suppose the takeaway is “what possible use would these people have for a public library?” Moreover, his hypothesis appears to say that libraries are not helping the Americans who need help the most.
Well, Mr. Harsanyi, I have some words for you, as well. Since you are so concrete, allow me to illustrate my points in list form.
1) I’d like to know in what day and age having an income of $50,000 is considered “prosperous” and, by the tone in which your article is written, greedy. Are librarians like the bankers on Wall Street who lost billions of dollars — people’s safety nets, retirement funds, and emergency savings — without consequence? I will have you know that the tax bracket to which you refer is, in fact, the middle class who, in case you haven’t realized, are mostly struggling to keep their heads above water. These are families who shop at Kohls and Shoprite and for which dinner and a movie out is a treat; families who cannot afford to buy all the copies of the childrens’ summer reading books so instead come to the library and put themselves on a waiting list for a borrowed copy.
2) Since when does having copies of popular fiction and film decrease lifelong learning and knowledge advancement? I suppose the author never heard the phrase, “read everything.” In his example, Harsanyi states that he had a difficult time finding a “decent” book on the history of early Christianity. Fair enough. Libraries can’t be expected to own everything. A public library should not be expected to maintain the same holdings as an academic library would. Did he take advantage of inter-library loan which would have allowed him to obtain such a book from another library in the consortium? Furthermore, did he ask if he could submit a suggestion for purchase? Most libraries, upon finding that they lack material in a certain area, are more than willing to accept suggestions that would help supplement their collection.
3) How do libraries cater to a single population? Gracy Olmstead writes that:
[I]t 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.
Sorry, Gracy – but when was the last time you yourself visited a library? Have you been to one serving a large homeless and unemployed population? And your comment about libraries’ failure to strengthening their communities? Most libraries are community meeting places – the public is free to hold meetings there, generally free of charge. Not to mention the programming that is planned to attract a diverse population to the library. Have you seen what modern librarians do on a daily basis? Not only maintaining their respective collections, but also offering free computer instruction to those in their community who would otherwise wall through the cracks — the mentally ill, the homeless, the long-term unemployed. If not for us, where else would these people turn?
Libraries do serve the middle class. Without a doubt. But we also serve the forgotten part of our population — those who can’t afford a computer and have no means by which to learn. Lots of us assume that everyone has internet access at home as well as their own personal computer and smartphone. Not the case. There are people who have spent their entire lives working in a blue collar profession who have had no use for such technology. Now they find themselves out of work right before they were due to retire, and they have to lean an entire battery of new skills just to apply for a job. We help those people because they have nowhere else to go. And what about Obamacare? You know, the Affordable Care Act that was supposed to be so simple to use? Where do people go for help with about that? The library.
Libraries are the ultimate democratic institution. They are open to the public, regardless of a patron’s race, socio-economic background, or salary. They offer the same privilege as do the shrinking number of maintained parks, playgrounds, and sidewalks. Librarians are not trying to compete with the public sector. We don’t want to be Netflix, or Barnes and Noble. Yes, many of us might have small backyards – does that mean we can’t also enjoy the beauty of say, Acadia or Yellowstone National Park? Yes, new moms can stay at home and arrange playdates for their children. But what about a sense of community with other new mothers who also want to introduce their children to the joy of reading? What are our priorities as a country? It seems to me that focusing on libraries while corporations slowly take over the country is petty, at best.
Sorry, David – you lose on this one.