Love Letter to Libraries
April 9, 2014 4:00 PM   Subscribe

“When a library is open, no matter its size or shape, democracy is open, too.” Maria Popova calls the new book The Public Library: A Photographic Essay, which took eighteen years to photograph and compile, "a wistful yet hopeful reminder of just what’s at stake if we let the greatest bastion of public knowledge humanity has ever known slip into the neglected corner of cultural priorities."
posted by Rykey (36 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Pew poll: When asked whether the closing of their local public library would have an impact on their communities, 90 percent of American adults (ages 16 years and older) said yes, it would, and 63 percent said the impact would be "major" ... of the 81 percent of Americans in the Pew survey who said they have been to a public library at least once in their lives, 91 percent reported that they have "never had a negative experience".
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 4:23 PM on April 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have spent many, many hours in libraries, public, academic and private. But they are not a fetish. What matters beyond the spaces, the books, the feel, the smell, the staff or the ambiance is the information. Physical libraries were once the only reliable, organized way to access that information. But now there is the internet. I will always fondly remember my hours spent in a library but I will spend no more...
posted by jim in austin at 4:32 PM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

This looks great. And I need more books.
posted by bongo_x at 4:52 PM on April 9, 2014

"I have always imagined Paradise will be a kind of library" - Borges
posted by the_royal_we at 4:53 PM on April 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

I will always fondly remember my hours spent in a library but I will spend no more...

This is talking from a position of privilege. Yes, your average middle class person can get nearly any book in the world in two days for increasingly cheap prices, or instantly if you say farewell to the physical.

But you have the money, you have the connections (social, internet and otherwise), you have the knowledge to do this. Many don't. The library helps them.

Granted, this is one of the biggest problems with support for libraries in this day and age. They have gone from a middle class entitlement to a lower class entitlement. Middle class entitlements are live wires, third rails politicians are loathe to touch. But it's easy for politicians to say "Fuck the poor" and cut the budget. How to solve that, I don't know.
posted by zabuni at 4:55 PM on April 9, 2014 [10 favorites]

Libraries aren't just about books and librarians aren't just people who deal with books. A UK-oriented list of what Public Librarians do.
posted by Wordshore at 4:59 PM on April 9, 2014 [7 favorites]

I don’t know the last time I was in a public library, but I will gladly pay more taxes for them, just like I pay for schools. I’m always skeptical when I hear the "we don’t need X anymore" line. I always feel like I’m reading the future explanation for how things went so terribly wrong.
posted by bongo_x at 4:59 PM on April 9, 2014 [7 favorites]

Following What's the Matter with Kansas, it's plainly not in my interest to support the library. Our system is supported by tax revenue by 8mm of property tax and the total county budget is 30mm. That would be a significant drop in my tax if we just killed the system (which I never use anyways)
posted by jpe at 5:10 PM on April 9, 2014

I lament the loss of libraries as community centers and as an access point for people without internet access. But this seems to fetishize libraries, or perhaps paper. According to Endgaget two-thirds of Americans have smart phones. 81.0% of Americans are internet users. "...the greatest bastion of public knowledge humanity has ever known..." is the internet.

Noodling through the stacks is its own fun but we are now in the midst of the greatest growth in publicly available knowledge. By far. It's not even close.

No need to dress or travel, go to the Library of Congress, or the Louvre if you like.

Hell, Project Gutenberg has 45,000 books, all for free.
posted by vapidave at 5:16 PM on April 9, 2014

Sorry to hear you never use your library, jpe. Have you considered that its use by others might have a positive impact on your community (and therefore, on you)? Or that what might not be in the interest of a given individual might be in the interest of society in general?
posted by Rykey at 5:19 PM on April 9, 2014 [11 favorites]

I don't think it gets a whole lot of community use, but I could be wrong. I would think that there are sufficient alternative venues that no one would be put out.
posted by jpe at 5:25 PM on April 9, 2014

jpe, you benefit from other people using the library. Have any favorite restaurants? The owners probably used the library to do research before opening their businesses. Have co-workers with kids? If their kids can use the library, they don't have to spend quite so much time finding or making other venues for their kids to explore, so they have more ability to focus on their jobs. Enjoying going downtown without being mugged or facing either endless gauntlets of beggars or a locked-down police state? Having a society in which people have a way to improve themselves means there's not a caste of angry poor people whose only path to betterment is to take what you have.
posted by amtho at 5:32 PM on April 9, 2014 [7 favorites]

Generally, jpe, the people who would be put out are the parents of young children, who generally cannot afford to buy and store the hundreds and hundreds of picture books and chapbooks children tend to go through under the age of 9, and older folks who can't afford to replace their lifetime collections with the large print versions that they now require.

Also: proximity to a library increases property values. If you live near one, your resale value is better than it would be otherwise.
posted by Hildegarde at 5:34 PM on April 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

I have three young kids. There are thrift stores, hand me downs, etc. We have books coming out our ears. Certainly not worth $8mm in a county that runs on $30mm.

I don't doubt there are some benefits, but they seem pretty marginal relative to the cost.
posted by jpe at 5:42 PM on April 9, 2014

I went to my public library last week. It was busy. It is always busy. It is honestly busier than I remember my public library being when I was a kid.
posted by interplanetjanet at 5:48 PM on April 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

I don't doubt there are some benefits, but they seem pretty marginal relative to the cost.

They seem that way because you don't understand the most fundamental things about public libraries, which is that they about much more than books on a shelf.
posted by Rykey at 5:51 PM on April 9, 2014 [8 favorites]

Physical libraries were once the only reliable, organized way to access that information. But now there is the internet. I will always fondly remember my hours spent in a library but I will spend no more...

Have you been to a public library recently? The most popular thing they offer is the internet, for people without the means to access it at home (or without a home at all).
posted by bookish at 5:51 PM on April 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

Hell, Project Gutenberg has 45,000 books, all for free.

Hoooeeee! That is a vast treasure equal to the number of books published worldwide in seventeen hours of a given year, or slightly under .2% of the holdings of the US Library of Congress. An embarrassment of riches!

Out of curiosity, I went to see if any of the dozens of works by my favourite author might be on PG. No, but while in the V section I found that all nine volumes of Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle (Dictionary of French Architecture from the Eleventh to the Sixteenth Century) by 19th-century French architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc are. Awesome beach reading, those.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:06 PM on April 9, 2014 [15 favorites]

1. I just got back into the habit of frequent public library visits recently, and apart from noticing that it is super busy ALL THE TIME (and this is a suburban branch, not even the downtown location), the most excellent part of it is that I am finally allowing myself to get rid of some of my bloated book collection. "I don't have to own a copy of this book," I keep telling myself, "because if I want to read it again later, I can check it out from the library." Libraries help set people free from their clutter. Yay.

2. People who do not personally use the library and therefore assume that libraries should no longer exist are honestly BAFFLING to me. I don't use the sewer system on the other side of town, but I am a-ok with my tax dollars helping repair it, because it is needed. By other people. I don't drive on every interstate in my state, but I support their existence because other people use the ones I don't. Public services...are for the public? Not just me and my individual needs??
posted by a fiendish thingy at 6:42 PM on April 9, 2014 [26 favorites]

While those ceilings in New York and Los Angeles are gorgeous, I think my favorite is Death Valley. It's plucky. It may even have moxie.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 7:01 PM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Libraries help set people free from their clutter.

Three months ago I found myself with some time to kill in the downtown core of my hometown, a city where I lived until age twenty and maybe eighteen months total of the ensuing twenty-five years since. I visited the central library where I had spent many fantastic hours as a young man and found that it had set itself free of its own clutter: where it had had five sprawling floors of books when I was a teenager, it now had two sparse floors bracketed by a floor of internet kiosks beneath and two levels of admin offices above. I was pigeonholed by a librarian (apparently accustomed to people wondering about looking lost) who let me know that the library had in its wisdom divested itself of over 85% of its holdings in the last decade. Lots of Dan Brown books left, though.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:21 PM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Right, and you will read a fraction of that, if any. Or you could maybe read Pride and Prejudice or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Metamorphosis or The Importance of Being Earnest:... or Great Expectations or Heart of Darkness or Gulliver's Travels or Middlemarch or The Works of Edgar Allan Poe — Volume 2 - while you are working on your tan there Zonker.
posted by vapidave at 7:25 PM on April 9, 2014

Beyond the books and knowledge, libraries are one of the only places I can go that doesn't try to extract money from me.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 8:08 PM on April 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

On any given day, about 80% of the clientele at my local library are either homeless or appear to be homeless. Many of them sleep on the floor, and smell of urine. Some will occasionally proposition passing women with lewd remarks. None of them read.

Libraries may be the health of democracy, but they may also be canaries in coal mines. Our society is not healthy, and the state of our libraries is evidence of that.
posted by Avenger at 8:25 PM on April 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

And many libraries have innovative programs aimed at homeless outreach, which is really more a symptom of a lack of public health funding in general, not somehow the fault of the libraries.

Public library usage is in fact well-documented and in many cases, on the up and up. If you don't think your town has a lot of users, you can always look up their numbers-- but also consider than online use of e-books and articles are really important services too.

I work in a library that got hit with the seriously ugly end of the 60's stick, but I'm surrounded by other more lovelier libraries. They're all important. Information literacy is not a skill set accrued by osmosis. Researching a project online? Need access to a database or search tips or techniques? Need help setting up an email account to fill out job applications in an increasingly digital world? Early learning story times? I can't drive but it's not like I argue that the DMV satellite near me, which is virtually always empty and only offers driver-focused services, should be disbanded even though it's quite expensive. Because it's needed by my community.
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:52 PM on April 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm just going to remind everyone about this comment from a thread a couple of years ago. For those of you who think libraries don't matter because of mobile phones or the internet, please have a look. It's more true than ever.

Public libraries play an essential role in economic downturns; ironically, those are the same times when they're most vulnerable to budget cuts. As others have mentioned, they provide internet access to those who can't afford it at home. The unemployed can look for jobs. Many libraries offer workshops on preparing resumes and going to interviews. Libraries also assist new immigrants, helping them integrate into their communities, learn English and prepare for the citizenship test.

I would argue (and I'm a librarian (albeit not a public librarian) so I'm biased) that we need robust public libraries more than ever. If you think it's just a building full of books, you clearly haven't visited one in a while.
posted by orrnyereg at 9:32 PM on April 9, 2014 [9 favorites]

That 45,000 number for Gutenberg puts it on par with a rather modest academic library. And that modest academic library probably isn't padding its numbers by counting each 'book' of the Bible separately (a sin I impute not only because it's typical but because the translation in question is of particular obscurity). And one suspects that this typical modest academic library would have divested itself of much that has found its way in to Gutenberg, had it ever held it.

Which isn't to say that PG isn't an achievement, or that its more obscure contents aren't of value. But it is hardly a substitute for public libraries.
posted by wotsac at 10:28 PM on April 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

I was going to put in the Anne Patchett quote from the link: "Know this — if you love your library, use your library. Support libraries in your words and deeds. If you are fortunate enough to be able to buy your books, and you have your own computer with which to conduct research, and you’re not in search of a story hour for your children, then don’t forget about the members of your community who are like you but perhaps lack your resources — the ones who love to read, who long to learn, who need a place to go and sit and think. Make sure that in your good fortune you remember to support their quest for a better life. That’s what a library promises us, after all: a better life. And that’s what libraries have delivered."

That's still true. But the comment that orrnyereg links to? Yes, that. It has also made me feel a bit ashamed of my impatience with some patrons, and determined to be more helpful.

The people reading this thread are, by definition, the lucky ones because we have internet access and the knowledge and skill to have found metafilter. Mind you, some of us are probably doing so at a public library.
posted by Athanassiel at 1:04 AM on April 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I used to think that public libraries wouldn't have any books I'd be interested in reading (all Dan Brown, John Grisham, Harlequin romances, and boring reference books, I guess I thought, though I didn't really spare it much thought). Was I wrong. I can request pretty much any book I can think of, and if it's not in my home library they can get it for me in a matter of days. I'm lazy enough to look up books in the library catalog, see that they're available, and put a hold on them so they are ready for me to pick up later in the day, no stack searching needed. I think people forget, or don't know, that library collections are shaped by USE. If you want libraries to have books you want to read, you have to borrow books you like.

The comment above about kids' books is so true, too. We own hundreds of childrens' books and I am still hugely bored by most of them because I've read them to my son a million times. We borrow kids' books by the handful. I freaking love my public library, it is a huge asset in my family's life.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 2:51 AM on April 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

If you don't see any people reading when you go to the library, that's because the people who get the most usage from library books don't spend their reading time at the library. They order the book online, pick up their hold from the hold shelf, and check out; they're in the library for five or ten minutes at a time. My library is a largeish public library in a middle-class-ish neighborhood, and most of our patrons are middle-class, but if you come in during the day then the people you'll see hanging around are the ones who don't have internet service at home, and the ones who don't have anywhere else to go during the day. The really dedicated readers are invisible, until we get our huge daily shipment of books on hold for people.
posted by Jeanne at 3:51 AM on April 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

No need to dress or travel, go to the Library of Congress, or the Louvre if you like.

Hell, Project Gutenberg has 45,000 books, all for free.

Like French food? Screw going to a restaurant. There are thousands of pics of coq au vin on Flickr!

Fan of (insert your favorite band here)? No need to buy their albums or see them live: just watch them on Youtube!

Enjoy sex? No need any more! Just watch porn!

Feel like it would be nice to be an active member of your local community? Forget about it: just agitate on Metafilter!
posted by nushustu at 4:08 AM on April 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

If you want a new avatar for your social media or website needs, then consider using this one.
posted by Wordshore at 4:20 AM on April 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

That 45,000 number for Gutenberg puts it on par with a rather modest academic library.

It also puts it less than order of magnitude above, you know, my house.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:47 AM on April 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Lately I've been surprised and saddened to hear more people brag about never going to the library, not even knowing where The Library is, and speaking of libraries as if they're just a different kind of homeless shelter full of dirt and bugs. Some of them are all, "Duh, that's what my Kindle's for" and others are like, "Read? Ain't nobody got time for that." Probably in another generation or so people will actually take pride in how not well-read they are and actual paper books will be considered crap that great-grandma is hoarding in the attic.
posted by fuse theorem at 11:31 AM on April 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

I revere libraries. I work for a vendor and I'm damned proud of what I do and for whom. But I'm preternaturally unable to return a library book on time. Though it would scost less to pay the fines than to buy from Amazon, I don't need the stress. Meanwhile, twenty years on the internet has rendered me post-literate- able to read and write pretty good but no longer able to sit still long enough.
posted by wotsac at 8:25 PM on April 10, 2014

From my perspective out here in the 'burbs, libraries and bookstores have both become, mostly, children's services. Because who wants to read a picture book on a kindle or a phone? And because where else (indoors) can you take little kids where people don't mind them being, y'know, kids? Barnes and Noble has a train set and a toy store and a story-time stage inside now, and our libraries have all that and more, play areas with rotating selections of educational toys, scheduled events and classes and other kids to play with. And that's leaving aside the "We read at least 6-10 kids books per day. It doesn't take us long to go through the few hundred that we own. Again."

I was a heavy library user in college, then not for a little while, but now that I have kids I don't know what we would do without them. I imagine if they didn't exist, groups of parents would have to invent them by sharing their book collections and taking turns reading stories at each others' houses...
posted by OnceUponATime at 4:59 AM on April 13, 2014

« Older [Warning-Autoplaying Tongue]   |   I'm finally on the right track Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments