libraries change lives
October 12, 2018 5:00 AM   Subscribe

Of course libraries can be a temple of books. I love nothing more than a well-stocked bookshelf and a leather armchair, but if, like me, you are into that sort of thing, you probably have the benefit of a literate upbringing. You were probably never in danger of being left behind. But we need to be careful of our romantic mistake, because a "temple of books" can be a very easy target for those looking to cut costs.
Libraries Work!, a research report released last month, demonstrates that every dollar invested in Victorian [Victoria, Australia] public libraries generates more than four times that value in benefits to the local community.

Libraries need to be protected. By all of us, for each other. And and we need to remember that libraries are not just nice, they are necessary.
posted by freethefeet (29 comments total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
Bravo. Thank you for posting.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 5:35 AM on October 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

"Libraries as savior" seems to be a trendy genre, especially after that Forbes piece. See also: To Restore Civil Society, Start With the Library (NYT) and American democracy is fracturing. Libraries say they know how to help (Quartz).

I'm sympathetic. I love the public library. When I tweeted the NYT article I wrote "Put librarians in charge. No institution does more to model a positive and expansive vision for our collective future."

The range of social services libraries take on is still absurd. We can't recreate the society we deserve within the library (especially as their budgets are cut). We need a connected ecosystem of robust public institutions.
posted by waninggibbon at 7:21 AM on October 12, 2018 [17 favorites]

Libraries, as I've said here before, are the original bootstraps.
posted by gauche at 7:33 AM on October 12, 2018 [5 favorites]

Obviously I have some strong feelings about this topic.

It's one that's been very popular this year, thanks to the radically different Forbes and naloxone articles. I find the best current (US-based) summary of new perceptions of the library to be this Quartz article that asks if libraries can save America. Overwrought title but basically good content. A lot of it applies, I'm guessing based on this article, to public libraries in Australia as well.

Dempsey and Malpas write this about academic libraries but I find it true of people's perceptions of public libraries as well:
"The identity of the library was formed by its print incarnation: a central building which makes print collections available. Powerful associations grew up around this: the library at the heart of the university, a physical manifestation of the cumulating scholarly and cultural record, which is created through research and scholarship, shared through teaching and learning, and preserved by the library. These associations are still strong. Indeed, it often is difficult to separate the idea of the library as a ‘building’ from the idea of the library as a ‘service.’ Consider media stories about academic libraries: they often will be accompanied by stock images of the Long Room at Trinity College Dublin, or a similar wood-paneled, book-lined library interior."

To which I have this to say: libraries are not a temple of anything, not books nor democracy. Your local public library is probably staffed by surly and underpaid workers as much as by saviors of the overdosed and illiterate. Resist caricature. The mission still matters.

If you put library workers on a pedestal in reaction to those dismissing them as relics of the pre-Google age, then they are still not human. Human beings need well-paying jobs with reasonable hours and safe working conditions. There is a great, great article by Fobazi Ettarh on vocational awe in libraries that you should read if you feel yourself falling into this trap.

Libraries definitely have an important mission in the growing darkness of the world today. As the article points out, it just may not be the mission--that temple of beautiful books--most middle class people would prefer.
posted by librarylis at 7:39 AM on October 12, 2018 [34 favorites]

Honestly, I am not sure it's any easier to protect the "library as bootstraps" than the "library as cozy, quiet room with wooden tables, armchairs and smelling pleasantly of old books" (my takeaway).

We know education is necessary and it is still targeted. Sometimes it seems easier to protect things perceived as exclusive luxuries than basic human rights.
posted by ipsative at 8:04 AM on October 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I think the “people don’t fight to protect temples of old books” thing is also Just Wrong.

I would totally fight with all my might to protect the hallowed libraries of my youth - the NYPL, where even in the project-ridden neighborhood I grew up in, we still had leatherbound copies of Gilbert & Sullivan, because the idea was that every citizen, even a desperately poor kid like me, should have access to great culture. I could wander through the stacks and find amazing things, each and every day, and I did. I resist the idea that it’s only middle class people who love these things.

I find myself somewhat ambivalent about protecting the libraries where I currently live, where they have zero nice old reference books, or cool things I wouldn’t think to read but will wind up being entranced by, and mostly seem to be stocking What Is Popular rather than What Is Edifying. I wandered through the entire library one day looking for things to take out, and found a grand total of three books. I have never left a library with three books in my life. I haven’t been back. I wander through Project Gutenberg to find my cool old books now. And you know - I’m sure it works for some people! But for me, libraries today bear no recognition to the libraries I knew and I just find them kind of odd.
posted by corb at 8:17 AM on October 12, 2018 [6 favorites]

I'm helping in a fight to protect my local village library. I have books all over my house as well as the library ones I get. I have enough books on shelves that I can just about have forgotten enough details to be able to cycle round them and enjoy them afresh.
posted by Burn_IT at 8:48 AM on October 12, 2018

I went from having the entirety of the Twin Cities library system to having one small rural library in a ninety mile radius. That one caters to its constituents so it is sadly overrun with romance and right-wing fantasia. I now have a library card that I never use. Kill.Me.Now.
posted by Ber at 9:31 AM on October 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

Everyone thinks they know all about libraries based on the library they went to as a kid and their neighborhood libraries. Full disclosure then: a tiny little public library, the big public library in the next town over, and NYPL. Also, I work in a university law library.

When I was a kid, a candy bar and a second-hand paperback cost the same, a quarter. I remember because it was a hard choice. It has been a long time since I bought a candy bar, but they probably cost less than the $3 a second-hand paperback will run you nowadays, if you can find a second-hand book store selling paperbacks. I did an awful lot of promiscuous reading of those quarter paperbacks, and a lot more sitting on bookstore floors pretending to be making a selection. (I still remember bringing home Laclos's Dangerous Liaisons under the impression that it was going to be a racy French novel, ooh la la. Never did quite recover from that.) Most of what I read was pernicious trash, and, God, how I loved it. I went on to read literature only because eventually the trash, though adorable, was like reading the same book over and over.

When you go to the library and it is full of What Is Popular rather than What Is Edifying, it is because librarians are picking up the slack that cheap second-hand paperback bookstores left when they vanished. You can't give them Fentanyl when they toddle in off the street. You have to work up to that dose. You give them Robert E. Howard, Georgette Heyer, or John Dickson Carr, nice opium. (My trash references are all out of date, sorry.) You work them slowly up through Walter Scott, Charlotte Bronte, and Dickens. Then, when they are hopelessly addicted and desperate for any fresh stimulus to jolt their jaded systems, only then do you bring out the Tolstoy, Woolf, and Joyce.

But that's only part of what a library does, and it only does that for some people. The other big thing it does is teach that an information infrastructure exists and is set up to be explored by ordinary people. That part fascinated me because I am the sort of person who winds up working in libraries, but it is generally available to anyone. In the old days libraries taught you about systems of dividing and classifying knowledge, controlled subject headings, syndetic structure, book indexes, bibliographies, periodical indexes, specialized encyclopedias, and scholarly journals. Nowadays, they teach you about databases, search algorithms, putting together unique combinations of search terms, and cross-checking information for reliability. Those glass and metal boxes in the corner aren't anything new. They are doing the work that shelf after shelf of dusty volumes used to do: leading patrons out into the great interlinked body of information that spans the world. That is huge. That is huge particularly if you live in a neighborhood that is otherwise a cultural vacuum.
posted by ckridge at 9:33 AM on October 12, 2018 [16 favorites]

To be sure, when I say that, I don't mean that libraries should be changed into unemployment and job-skills training centers. I mean that kids with no money also deserve access to a nice translation of Ovid.
posted by gauche at 10:18 AM on October 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

Here's the thing- libraries stock the books that will circulate the most. That's mostly What is Popular. If the circulation stats show that the newest James Patterson book is going to be checked out immediately with a hold list of 50 people, then the library is going to buy five copies of that James Patterson book to meet demand. If one person is going to check out an Extremely Edifying book and it's going to sit on the shelf for 2 years untouched, then that kind of book becomes less of a good investment for the library's limited budget in the future.

The best way to get your local library to stock more of the books you want to read is to put in requests for those books and check them out. You can request books that the library doesn't own, they'll arrange to borrow it from another library for you. For free! Get your family and friends to do the same (I realize this is a very hard sell... I have yet to really succeed in that and I'm a librarian myself!). Libraries want you to come in, they want you to check out books, they want you to ask for books they don't have. For real! I do think most libraries have a serious e-book collection problem, which I complain about to my [public librarian] husband all the time, but that's a money & licensing issue.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 10:21 AM on October 12, 2018 [11 favorites]

Lauren Smith compiled a list of things done, and services provided, by Public Library workers. This was back in 2011 now, but it's still quite a list, especially with the additional points in the comments.
posted by Wordshore at 10:46 AM on October 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

One reason that public libraries get targeted for cuts is that they are not only a state-provided valuable public service, they are the single best way the state has of letting people know what other public services are available. Conservatives don't like to see poor people get anything for free, and they really don't like to see poor people being shown how to seek out government aid.
posted by ckridge at 10:55 AM on October 12, 2018 [13 favorites]

You give them Robert E. Howard, Georgette Heyer, or John Dickson Carr, nice opium. (My trash references are all out of date, sorry.) You work them slowly up through Walter Scott, Charlotte Bronte, and Dickens.

While there is a lot in your argument I agree with regarding the broader services libraries rightfully provide, I'm not a big believer in the "gateway" trash author leading to later love of fine literature argument. Far and away, most people stick with the "trash" forever meaning it needs defending on its own merits. Which is certainly possible, but also does come at the cost of other items being purchased in their place.

The best way to get your local library to stock more of the books you want to read is to put in requests for those books and check them out.

Except that goes back to the problem of those limited budgets and the more popular things getting prioritized. My local library won't consider many books that are more "esoteric" for the combination of price and likely borrowing. Which is sensible enough from one set of practical values, but has a downside in those books often are much more difficult to find elsewhere, compared to having a dozen or so of some popular title that also shows up in stacks at used book stores, and those books are often harder for poor people to afford in the first place compared to popular fiction that will be released in paperback at some point and is priced to move.

Another way to look at the conflicting demands is in things like DVD purchases, where the library is giving money to Hollywood studios for big budget entertainment in place of spending it on something else. That isn't the only thing they spend their DVD money on and there is supportable reason for it to give people chance to see the movies that might not have the same opportunity otherwise, but it still isn't quite the same as buying a book as DVD borrowing suggests at least the borrower has ready access to a DVD player and one would assume some other way to access media on their own that justified purchase of the player. That though is also a limited perspective as much of the DVD selection at my library and some others I've been to seems to be directed heavily towards seniors and does also cover non-popular genres of media, like documentaries, how-to guides, foreign films and tv series.

I personally can't separate out the things I like from those that bother me because the attempt demands some clearly defined idea of what is a library is "supposed to" do and who it needs most serve in fulfilling that function, which also means deciding who's needs/desires don't get served. It's much to complex an issue to settle simply by some uniform value claim especially in a time where library budgets are already under stress and threat of reduction.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:04 AM on October 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

For a bunch of folks who so vocally claim to love books, I'm not surprised to see yet another thread about libraries drawn down the same dull rabbit hole of edifying literature without engaging directly in the (relatively short) FPP article... Almost as if those people didn't read it?
posted by codacorolla at 11:15 AM on October 12, 2018 [7 favorites]

Libraries, as I've said here before, are the original bootstraps.

I agree, of course, but just wish to re-iterate that this is true for public (aka free-at-point-of-use) libraries. Subscription libraries weren't so helpful.

To get back to the article: yes, libraries can be temples of books. More of a smorgasboard selection, actually - and that's been true for decades.

My local public system also functions as:
- place for internet access for everyone, regardless of means
- warming / cooling centres (for people without adequate shelter)
- community hubs, with free/low-cost events and meeting spaces
- co-working space for people who can't afford to pay $$$ to share a table
- education hubs for children and adults, with early development classes, classes for newcomers or seniors, even academic talks
- galleries, sometimes independent movie houses (who else screens Indigenous Sci-Fi films?)
- video stores

and, except for the very first one, they have also been these things for decades. My mom could borrow a projector and film reels; That's the way she'd play movies at birthday parties years before we had a VCR.

And they also lend tools, give access to 3d printing, now have streaming services (with a much better catalogue of independent and international film than Netflix) - and are my Number 1 radio station (audiobooks). They can even explain what's happening with our local elections, which is a massive achievement.

Yes, they shouldn't be the only social services, and too much has been dumped on them. But as community informational and educational hubs, they are brilliant. And we need to remind people that shutting down a library isn't just shutting down a 'temple of books', which is sad, but also a critical community hub.
posted by jb at 12:20 PM on October 12, 2018 [7 favorites]

Subscription libraries weren't so helpful.

The Mechanics' Institutes often were, afaict.
posted by clew at 12:29 PM on October 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

(And had many services, not just the books, as part of their mission to be useful, so they're an argument for "many things to most people".)

One of the things that's expensive and rare in many places is now a quiet place to think without interruption, so that strikes me as one of the useful public provisions. Wood panelling not required, but honestly above head-height it probably isn't the expensive operations cost, either.
posted by clew at 12:33 PM on October 12, 2018

"another thread about libraries drawn down the same dull rabbit hole of edifying literature"

Evidently not everyone finds it dull, and it pertains directly to the notion of a library as a temple of books, since, if a library were a temple of books, the books in it would properly be those worthy of worship, to wit, edifying ones.

I am fond of the notion of vile and pernicious trash being the gateway drug to subversive, filthy, and mind-warping literature because that's the way it worked for me. It doesn't work that way for everyone, and if most people want to read mass-produced romance novels and thrillers forever, that's good with me. Pulp fiction wouldn't serve as a gateway to literature if it didn't already have some of literature's good qualities. It isn't an accident that Dosteyevsky is heavily influenced by pulp fiction, or that Balzac and Zola just are pulp fiction. Trash can get awful damned good while staying trash.

Also, to quote one of my old professors, reading anything at all is better than reading nothing at all.

What libraries often do about best-sellers that are wanted in multiple copies one year and dead on the shelf the next is to rent them and return them. It doesn't save a hell of a lot of money, but you don't get heat when someone finds out you have a dumpster out back full of old best-sellers.

One thing to recall about the relative expense of stocking classics and stocking pulp fiction is that every major work of literature in English published before 1923 is available for free online. I only read classics on my phone now. My eyes aren't great, and I can adjust the print size that way. You can link directly to online books in your online library catalog. It is rough on the reprint houses, but it sure does conserve shelf space.

I can't tell you about movies, because I don't have the patience to watch them, but I understand from those better informed than myself that they often have artistic merit. If so, they belong in libraries, particularly because they don't really cost much or take up much space.

What they told us is that libraries are supposed to foster love of reading, permit self-education, and strengthen communities. It's not clear how a temple of books does any of those. It seems like magical thinking to suppose that it would.
posted by ckridge at 12:43 PM on October 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

For a bunch of folks who so vocally claim to love books, I'm not surprised to see yet another thread about libraries drawn down the same dull rabbit hole of edifying literature without engaging directly in the (relatively short) FPP article

Well, there's nothing really new being said in the article that is any more exciting than the other dull talk people are engaging in. Yes, libraries good. It's Metafilter, that's pretty much a given. The article mentions how they are engaging patrons beyond books, and that's what sparked the other areas of conversation since acknowledgment of libraries as being useful isn't really much of a topic to expand on.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:00 PM on October 12, 2018

I found this interesting...

Yet recently, when we installed a Children’s Play and Learn screen, we were given some significant push-back from an educated, vocal few. I have sympathy for this reaction – parents’ concerns about children’s overuse of digital media at home are understandable, even laudable. But the assumption that all children have too much access to high-quality interactive digital play at home is a fantasy, and those who are lucky enough to have such access need to remember that libraries are not there only for them.

So when I was on mat leave I took my baby to babytime every week at the second-closest to me library, for reasons. The reasons were in favour of the second-closest, not anything against the actual closest. But one time when we happened to be in the closest library (just hanging out), their babytime was starting so I figured hey, let's go.

Now here's the thing about the library branch closest to me, it is one of the newest branches and is set up with a super-strong tech focus. Like they have a giant TV with cable in the periodical section for people to just watch whatever, 3d printers, a video studio with green screen, a computer lab with subscriptions to every Adobe product ever, and Macs with their mac-y stuff, of course, etc. etc. They have programming classes and arduino classes and a robotics club, etc. etc.

So We went to babytime there and I was greatly disappointed to see their tech fetish shining through at the babies. They had a giant tv screen where they showed youtube videos during babytime. Seriously. I figured, I don't bring my baby to the library to watch youtube videos and I've never been back to babytime there.

The second-closest library has no tech fetish. THey have toys and blocks and books and musical instruments at babytime, not youtube videos.

I'm totally in favour of libraries providing tech access and I have used some of the specialized tech services at closest branch and expect that I will use them more in the future. This isn't an anti-tech thing or an anti-libraries-as-tech-hubs thing, but I'm having a hard time believing there are youtube videos at babytime because anyone is worried about babies who don't have access to youtube at home.

Oh, and closest-to-me library serves condos, many quite expensive (though lots of people surely rent them). Second closest library is near public housing. So, I'm not convinced the tech fetish at my closest library serves to get tech into hands of people who don't have it at home.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 1:25 PM on October 12, 2018 [5 favorites]

The author rightfully points out that libraries provide tremendous value to marginalized people, and that they are absolutely for marginalized people, but also...I can't shake the fear that "services for the poor become poor services."

I think she's trying to say "middle/upper class, this service isn't for you at the exclusion of other people" but there's some part of the message that sounds like "middle/upper class, this service isn't for you" which doesn't seem like a particularly sustainable (or good) thing for the library or for society at large. Medicare is significantly more politically secure than Medicaid for a reason.

Then again, that might be my American bias - one can only hope that positioning libraries as refuges for the marginalized makes Australians seem them as more important rather than less.
posted by mosst at 2:32 PM on October 12, 2018 [5 favorites]

Seems to me that people trying to avoid taxes will complain about libraries being fusty temples, if they think they have a traditionally book-centric library, but will instantaneously switch to complaining about libraries being anything else, if the library seems to have switched.
posted by clew at 4:30 PM on October 12, 2018 [13 favorites]

clew, I regret that I have only one favorite to give to that comment.

Flagged for fucking fantastic.

Complainers spout "Everything's on Amazon, amirite?!" about "fusty temples" and "I bet none of those kids has ever cracked a book in his life, amirite?!" about libraries that have taken any steps toward offering/implementing technology.
posted by virago at 9:08 PM on October 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

And when you point out that a library does both, they complain that that's too much and why should kids these days get spoiled? And when you say "well, the library's for everyone, I go, why don't you?", various complaints.
posted by clew at 1:18 PM on October 13, 2018

(Of which some are more sympathetic than others, e.g., "I work all the time and the tax system here isn't progressive." Also bedbugs.)
posted by clew at 1:22 PM on October 13, 2018

Temples of books or tombs for books? Scan 'em all.
posted by ethansr at 3:58 PM on October 13, 2018

I'd love to see all books scanned (if they're not already in digital format), but most books are still under copyright, so how you make the scans available to people is not an easy question.
Scanning is also very expensive.
posted by uosuaq at 6:33 PM on October 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

Even then we'd still need libraries to check out devices to read them on -- lots of books don't translate to plain text, and screens you can read high-res scans on aren't cheap. Also we'd need a new national or global library, metadata, backup, versioning system to store and provide everything, and despite the FAANG's shell games none of that is cheap.
posted by clew at 6:28 PM on October 14, 2018

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