Monday, September 06, 2010

What's Behind the Recent Attacks on Public Libraries?

Back in June, the Chicago bureau of FoxNEWS aired a story asking "Are Libraries Necessary, or a Waste of Tax Money?" They framed their story as such:
[K]eeping libraries running costs big money. In Chicago, the city pumps $120 million a year into them. In fact, a full 2.5 percent of our yearly property taxes go to fund them.

That's money that could go elsewhere – like for schools, the CTA, police or pensions
They even went so far as to send in undercover cameras to see if, in this era of online information, libraries were indeed a waste of tax dollars:
So we decided to check it out. We used an undercover camera to see how many people used the library and what were they doing.

In an hour, we counted about 300 visitors. Most of them were using the free internet. The bookshelves? Not so much.
If you've paid attention to their methods, you probably won't be surprised to learn that the FoxNEWS story was highly misleading. According to Mary A. Dempsey, Commissioner of the Chicago Public Library, whose brilliant response to Fox is well worth reading in full:
Last year, Chicagoans checked out nearly 10 million items from the Chicago Public Library’s 74 locations and the majority of those items were books. (Your ‘undercover cameras” shots were taken in a series of stacks devoted to bound periodicals used for reference. Next time, try looking at the circulating collections throughout the building.)
But Chicago isn't the only place where the usefulness of public libraries in the digital age is being challenged. The Guardian's Jonathan Jones recently blasted an op-ed by Frank Skinner that the London Times published on why Britain should do away with their information lending institutions. It should be noted that although Jones dismisses Skinner as a "comedian," here he's dismissed as "a third rate comedian who sometimes has a chat show on British television and is probably best known for once helping to write a football song". From Jone's response
Do you believe in a well-funded, free library service? The comedian Frank Skinner doesn't. Writing in the Times last week, he sneered at old black and white images of cloth-capped workers educating themselves for free. He's a working-class lad himself, he reminded readers, and libraries never did anything for him. These dreary hangouts are just a big joke.

I came across his column just after my daughter completed a superb summer reading programme run by Camden Libraries, which was singled out yesterday by the Reading Agency. There is a huge gulf between the reality of libraries using imaginative ideas to get kids reading and the stereotype Skinner's Times column sought to create. Apparently, he is happy to see a world of diminished literacy, full of people whose idea of mental stimulation is to watch him banter on the telly.
The Times of London (which, like FoxNEWS, is owned by Rupert Murdoch) charges readers for access to their opinion pieces by third-rate comedians, so I'll have to take Jones' word for what it actually contains.

Of course, a local news piece in Chicago and an op-ed in London hardly constitute a widespread organized attack on public libraries, but to question their usefulness at all seems amazingly insensitive to the needs of the people they serve and nearly evil, in my opinion. However, I became a bit more alarmed about where such attacks might be coming from and where they might lead when my memory connected Jones' astute comment on "a world of diminished literacy" with these two passages from Orwell's explanation of Newspeak:
Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum. [...]

From the foregoing account it will be seen that in Newspeak the expression of unorthodox opinions, above a very low level, was well-nigh impossible.
Of course it takes the special brand of suspicion that thrives where I come from (where no conspiracy theory is untrue until proven so) to imagine Murdoch sitting in his office, petting a hairless cat, and plotting to further brainwash the viewers of his mass media empire by discouraging them from stumbling upon information that might contradict his pre-approved narratives at free libraries, but an extensive search for any other organization other than FoxNews that doesn't understand the importance of public libraries, especially during economic hardship, turned up nothing. (Anyone else find others?) There are budget cuts being proposed, but nothing so brash as these assertions of obsolescence from the same source.

The linchpin of their anti-library argument (i.e., that you can get all this information online) is easily dismissed when you remember the why we have public libraries in a democracy. Dempsey put it succinctly:
The mission of the Chicago Public Library is and always has been to make available to all people from birth through senior citizenship, the resources they need to enjoy a good quality of life, to participate in lifelong learning, and to become and remain civically engaged. If information is power, then the public library is the source of that power....
Until use of a computer and Internet access is universally free, what's available online to all people from birth through senior citizenship isn't free. What you can read in a public library is, including what's online.

As Diane Rehm noted at the beginning of the economic crisis in a piece titled "The Role of Libraries in Economic Hard Times," when the economy sours, people often turn to local libraries for help. In the piece, Diane's guests note that historically, people have always (re)turned to their libraries with each downturn in the economy, and now more than every not only for internet access and free entertainment options, but also workshops on polishing one's resume or other employment help and community development initiatives. This haven of information and community organization would be the saddest of losses for those hurting the most during the economic crisis. As such, Murdoch's lack of support, even if you don't see a conspiracy of concerted attacks on libraries, strikes me as an opportunistic and nearly criminally cynical disservice.

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12 Comments:

Anonymous Ten Mile said...

I enjoyed this article.

9/07/2010 09:49:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fox News thrives on having a less smart populace and will help in any way to hasten the decline in intelligence. After all, stupid people are much easier to manipulate and who does that better than Fox and the Republican Party propagandists like Karl Rove?

----ondine nyc

9/07/2010 10:08:00 AM  
Anonymous Mery Lynn said...

If all of us only have access to books on line, then truth becomes permeable. Words can be rewritten on line without much effort and who would know the difference? History, even with books, gets revised into propaganda: no Holocaust, the Founding Fathers were more influenced by fundamentalist ministers than the Enlightenment, Ronald Reagan single-handedly brought down the Soviet Union. This ability to control history is what Rupert is after.

9/07/2010 10:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

As the economist Edward De Soto might point out, it isn't simply access to information but access to data that you can ascertain the veracity of. Otherwise, among other things, one may rightly claim that their decisions were based on the best available data at the time and so the consequences of their actions is not to be prescribed to themselves.

That the American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie had the foresight to have open stacks in his sustainable libraries is really cool.

9/07/2010 12:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The only reason Murdoch does anything like this is to keep people like you and me worried. He makes us waste time talking about it. He's less concerned with killing the public libraries than he is with killing the public discourse. If we're shouting him down saving libraries, then we're not shouting him down on, oh, say, media consolidation or letting the Bush tax cuts expire or whatever other pies Rupe has his fingers in.

Can you imagine the conference call between Murdoch and the Koch brothers? It would be like 30 minutes of insane cackling and then they'd say goodbye.

9/07/2010 02:24:00 PM  
Blogger William Dolan said...

Earlier this year, there was a news story about how Chicago Public Library branches were understaffed due to budget-cutting layoffs. Returned books weren't being put back in a timely manner, etc. This would indicate that the libraries are being used. Also, the branch by me serves as sort of a day care center for kids to go to between school and when their parents get off of work. In the last decade, the CPL saw the need to upgrade most of its branches with new facilities. It seems to me that there community libraries are important.

9/07/2010 02:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ed, as an author, do you think you should be paid every time your book is checked out of the library? Curious how that would work.

I equate libraries with quality public education - both are necessary. Benjamin Franklin had an idea worth preserving. Attempting to get rid of libraries is evil and un-American. In short, it's the devil's work!

Cathy

9/07/2010 02:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

I always thought it weird how the fictional shows on Fox were somewhat progressive (Simpsons, Married with Children, and the like) while the fictional 'news' shows were conservative. I do not think Murdoch so much as an evil mastermind (of the likes of Cheney) as I do a shrewd (and probably evil) businessman who knows conflict generates interest.

And I am usually the cynical one.

9/07/2010 03:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back in 2002, Nicholson Baker, author of Vox and The Mezzanine, put forth a book entitled, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper. The following is a synopsis from Publishers Weekly: "Baker has written a startling exposition of an ugly conspiracy perpetuated by the very people entrusted to preserve our history. Baker started the American Newspaper Repository in 1999, when he discovered that the only existing copies of several major U.S. newspapers were going to be auctioned off by the British Library. Not only were U.S. libraries not interested, it turned out that they'd tossed their own copies years before. Why? Baker uncovered an Orwellian universe in our midst in which preservation equals destruction, and millions of tax dollars have funded and continue to fund the destruction of irreplaceable books, newspapers and other print media. The instruments of that destruction microfilm, microfiche, image readers and toxic chemicals are less to blame than the cadre of former CIA and military operatives at the Library of Congress in the 1950s who refused to acknowledge that those technologies were, in fact, inferior to preserving and storing the originals. They were more concerned with ways to (in the words of one) "extract profit and usefulness from" old books while at the same time "prevent [them] from clogging the channels of the present." Baker details these events in one horrifying chapter after another, and he doesn't mince words. One can only gasp in outraged disbelief as he describes the men and women who, while supposedly serving as responsible custodians of our history, have chosen instead to decimate it."

9/07/2010 05:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live in a San Francisco suburb and there is a popular "hyper-local" blog that focuses on goings on in our community - stories about lost cats and charity car-washes - that type of thing.

A recent post mentioned one of the local libraries. I was shocked to see the number of angry comments that called for abolishing the library because it is anachronism in the digital age.

It seems that many people view them as just another waste of tax dollars.

And it seems that the local politicians agree. I heard an interview with the author of a NYT best-seller and went to the library to check and see if there was a copy available. There wasn't a single copy in the entire county-wide library system. (And this is a county that contains some of the wealthiest suburbs in America.[Mine not among them]) The reference librarian (I later learned she was a volunteer) explained that I could put in a purchase request but that the County was not purchasing books now. This, too, threw me for a loop. When I was a kid growing up in a poor community in Appalachia, our county library purchased at least one copy of every "bestseller".

A very sad situation.

9/07/2010 05:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Lee Gainer said...

I spent so many hours of my childhood lingering at my local library (pre-internet) and learned of a world beyond it. No museum trips for this kid, but I had my library. I am still an avid reader (actual books, no Kindles and such). I can't imagine not having them available.

I do not understand the loyalty of fox viewers. They claim to be the middle class, the American working man. But then they shoot themselves in the foot by supporting whatever fox tells them to. No libraries. What next? No schools? No roads? Then there's the whole misleading report from fox. If you point this out, you become another "communist liberal" (or whatever the current rant is from Beck). Makes no sense at all.

Oh, and no, authors should not be paid when a book is checked out. They are paid when the county/city purchases the book for circulation. JMTC.

9/08/2010 09:34:00 AM  
Blogger Tatiana said...

As I type this, my assistant is working on her powerpoint for the next job seeking class she facilitates here at the library. Yes, all of our internet pcs are full and most folks are either on facebook, ebay or jobsearching. I see a patron spinning the paperback bookrack and I see patrons in our nonfiction stacks as well. This Chicago-land library IS used and IS valued. Funny thing,.. the folks who have the knee-jerk "libraries are a waste of taxpayer money" response, are usually the folks who havent even visited their home library in decades. Give me one "knee jerk" respondent who has visited their library weekly for one month -- and has investigated what we really do have to offer...I'd like to meet them. My experience is when I come upon a patron who hasnt visited in a while, and I've explained what we have to offer, our services, our materials our remote accessibility -- they are STUNNED at what their tax dollars actually afford them. People need to ENGAGE with their libraries again....and their librarians!

9/08/2010 04:17:00 PM  

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