A Palace for the People
April 13, 2019 4:29 AM   Subscribe

Years ago, I lived in a remote mountain town that had never had a public library. The town was one of the largest in New York State by area but small in population, with a couple thousand residents spread out over about two hundred square miles. By the time my husband and I moved there, the town had lost most of its economic base. [...] The town board proposed a small tax increase to fund a library, something on the order of ten dollars per household. It was soundly defeated. The dominant sentiments seemed to be “leave well enough alone” and “who needs books?” Then there was the man who declared that “libraries are communist.”

Sue Halpern writes In Praise of Public Libraries for The New York Review of Books.
posted by ragtag (46 comments total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
 
I only discovered public libraries in my late twenties, thanks to my wife. I don't know what I'd do without them now! I take my little one at least once a week, and we'll be going later this morning as soon as it opens.
posted by ragtag at 4:32 AM on April 13 [8 favorites]


I'm not a member of the local library (I don't have the time or energy to read much, sadly. I used to read tons), but we go to the library book sales every year and spend money to support them beyond our tax dollars. I tend to buy most of the books I truly want to read, just like I buy physical merchandise for the music and movies I want to have in my life.

I'm not knocking libraries. I wouldn't be the person I am today if the local library system didn't have a bookmobile program with a librarian who paid attention to my interests and constantly fished out volumes she knew I would want to check out and stock them on the days when it was close to my house. Libraries today are founts of general knowledge well beyond books, and they are serving their communities well. I always contribute to my local library. It matters.
posted by hippybear at 4:50 AM on April 13 [9 favorites]


Thanks for this! I actually have an interview at a new library today and this article, plus my usual Dead Kennedys on repeat, is a pretty good pump-up.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:55 AM on April 13 [23 favorites]


"And it occurred to me one Saturday, as I watched quilters sitting at our one table trade patterns and children clear the shelves of The Magic School Bus series, racing to check them out, that the man who had said that libraries were communist had been right. A public library is predicated on an ethos of sharing and egalitarianism. It is nonjudgmental. It stands in stark opposition to the materialism and individualism that otherwise define our culture. It is defiantly, proudly, communal."
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:20 AM on April 13 [63 favorites]


I did a quick site search on Eric Klinenberg just to make sure that I'm not posting something painfully obvious here. I know the FPP contains a reference, but I feel like his social infrastructure idea deserves a big shout out. He's been on book tour so has done some excellent interviews on his recent book, Palaces for the People. (As mentioned in the FPP.)

I don't want to bog people down with all of them, but my favorite interviews have been with Roman Mars, Chris Hayes and the RSA.

Some very good ideas in those talks. Had my mind blown a few times.
posted by Telf at 5:39 AM on April 13 [12 favorites]


Carnegie was sent out to work, first as a bobbin boy in a cotton factory and later as a messenger for a telegraph company. Working boys were allowed to borrow one book a week from the private library of Colonel James Anderson, a successful local iron manufacturer and veteran of the War of 1812.

Anderson's house, the site of that library that Carnegie frequented as a boy, is still standing in my neighborhood.
posted by octothorpe at 5:39 AM on April 13 [11 favorites]


From the original link:
Last July an economics professor at Long Island University published an article in Forbes arguing that public libraries should be closed because they had outlived their usefulness now that Netflix streams movies, Starbucks offers free Wi-Fi, and, most conveniently, electronic books are instantly available from Amazon. Closing libraries in favor of Amazon would be a win-win, he said, because taxes would go down while Amazon’s share price would go up

Forbes took down that article within 24 hours due to the blowback. Luckily, the internet archive provides us with the original in case anyone would like to read it.

What's amazing, is how poorly written the article is. It almost reads as if it were written by an 8th grader trying to change a wikipedia entry just enough that they don't get in trouble for plagiarism. I mean the idea is so bad it feels like a lazy trolling attempt, but the writing is painfully kludgey.
posted by Telf at 5:46 AM on April 13 [16 favorites]


Last July an economics professor at Long Island University published an article in Forbes arguing that public libraries should be closed because they had outlived their usefulness now that Netflix streams movies, Starbucks offers free Wi-Fi, and, most conveniently, electronic books are instantly available from Amazon. Closing libraries in favor of Amazon would be a win-win, he said, because taxes would go down while Amazon’s share price would go up. The professor was especially enamored of the company’s cashierless storefronts, which, in his estimation, “basically combines a library with a Starbucks.” The “library” being referred to, it should be noted, is a commercial enterprise that sells books.

She goes on to say that the article was removed by Forbes in response to outcry from readers. Thank goodness.

I love my library. It has a maker lab, meeting spaces, and of course the third-party systems for borrowing ebooks and music, and the shelves of books of fiction and non-fiction books on any number of hobbies I'm plowing through at a given time.

I have trouble slowing down and paying attention enough to get through a book these days. When I was younger the magic of the library was the possibility of discovery behind every spine. I found a lot of amazing books and writers because it was free and there was no risk to taking a book I'd never heard of. Now so much of my reading is curated - I have lists and piles of books based on internet lists and prizes that tell me someone else thought they were great books. It's not fair to say the library is completely uncurated - any book is there because of a long chain of decisions to write it, publish it, buy it and/or accept it as a donation. But it's the difference between a rose garden and a national park. The library is wild.
posted by bunderful at 6:01 AM on April 13 [9 favorites]


The 99% Invisible podcast had a recent episode on libraries, based on Eric Klinenberg's book Palaces for the People.
posted by sriracha at 6:05 AM on April 13 [3 favorites]


Some of my earliest memories are of libraries. When I was about 4, my parents moved "way out in the country" (our mail used to come addressed "Rural Route 2" rather than the street name) and the nearest branch library was a tiny little storefront in the back of a generic strip mall. Within a few years, so many more people had moved into the area that they raised funds to build an absolutely beautiful library building a couple miles down the road. It has a soaring A-frame ceiling, kind of Scandinavian in style, with a large children's section with half-height shelves, and the adult section is two parallel rows (non-fiction, fiction) surrounding a center study space. The back wall is floor-to-ceiling windows with a view out toward the Blue Ridge Mountains, which you used to be able to see on a clear day before development and smog got in the way.

I've been a member of a lot of libraries since then, including the NYPL with its famed 42nd St branch and the Rose Reading Room, but Centreville Regional remains my platonic ideal of library.
posted by basalganglia at 6:18 AM on April 13 [14 favorites]


I'm not a member of the local library (I don't have the time or energy to read much, sadly. I used to read tons),
Out of curiosity, why not join? I’ve always assumed that even if you don’t use it much it’s good for a tax-funded service to be able to show higher numbers of residents using it.
posted by adamsc at 6:38 AM on April 13 [22 favorites]


In those halcyon pre-Internet days, my parents didn’t have TV in the house and for some reason I never had much homework, so after I had consumed several decades of National Geographic magazines and later the 1965 World Book Encyclopedia set (thanks Grandma!), next was the contents of the county library system, mostly the spy thriller and SciFi sections...

Books are a cheap, compact, relatively robust, generally one-shot (repeated uses yield lesser utility) durable good so are perfect for the communal use model.

When I drive past the local storage yards full of people’s expensive RVs rotting in the sun I marvel at how RVs are not any of that.
posted by Heywood Mogroot III at 6:42 AM on April 13 [4 favorites]


I actually have an interview at a new library today
Good luck!
posted by terrapin at 6:47 AM on April 13 [2 favorites]


A bit of regional library uplift can be found here.

I take particular interest in that library, nicely profiled here and here, because my grandfather was the architect.

(The library of my home town, contemporaneous with BFJones, was years ago re-purposed as a storage joint, its bookish function taken over by a newer, duller modern thing. Makes one weep.)
posted by BWA at 6:50 AM on April 13 [1 favorite]


Books are...generally one-shot (repeated uses yield lesser utility)

I beg to differ.
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 7:07 AM on April 13 [28 favorites]


Ah, I knew I had run across Charles Lummis lately...Seems he was a true character.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:08 AM on April 13 [1 favorite]


One slight musing I have is why don't we (or do) invest in libraries in the 'developing' world? There is all kinds of aid that is too often of short term utility, long term introducing good ideas would be the greatest help to the world.
posted by sammyo at 7:17 AM on April 13 [2 favorites]


sammyo not sure which "we" you mean but the American Library Association has info on their international programs here.

There used to be a federal agency called the US Information Agency that maintained overseas libraries (they also administered the Fulbright program and Voice of America, among other things). Those libraries were supposed to be local reference libraries to support development, though they also functioned as a propaganda channel in the "cultural diplomacy" of the Cold War. The agency struggled to maintain funding and was ultimately folded into the State Dept in the late 1990s, by which point most of those libraries were closed or folded into local embassies' control. You can read a bit about the history of the program here in this random paper I found. More detail on the USIA's predecessor agency the USIS in the 1940s can be found here (PDF link).
posted by Wretch729 at 7:46 AM on April 13 [9 favorites]


I grew up at the library. It was a safe space for an ugly, deformed child and the library took me everywhere! Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, to the Earth's Core, to Barsoom and beyond! I'm in arm's reach of my own library right now! I shudder to think of children deprived of the simple pleasure of holding a book and thinking, take me there!
posted by SPrintF at 7:49 AM on April 13 [20 favorites]


Last July an economics professor at Long Island University published an article in Forbes arguing that public libraries should be closed because they had outlived their usefulness now that Netflix streams movies, Starbucks offers free Wi-Fi, and, most conveniently, electronic books are instantly available from Amazon.

Previously on MetaFilter
posted by soundguy99 at 8:08 AM on April 13 [4 favorites]


This was a great article, thanks for posting.
posted by soundguy99 at 8:09 AM on April 13


As is sometimes said, if you suggested the public library system now it would be dismissed as a collectivist utopian fantasy.

The national parks service, the post office, and the public library are the best things the US ever came up with and deserve more funding and portfolio then they know what to do with.
posted by The Whelk at 8:20 AM on April 13 [42 favorites]


I am starting a new job at a public library on Monday and I am so excited! Thanks for posting—perfect timing!
posted by bookmammal at 8:21 AM on April 13 [14 favorites]


For Reasons, I landed in a not-great area of a city with dying batteries in my phone and tablet. I used the last of the battery to find the nearest library. Wifi, power outlet, computer access, and a welcoming environment, where I watched locals use the library for homework, job training, socializing, reading, movies. Libraries are an oasis.

Last summer, we were lost at night finding out campground, no gps maps because it was remote-ish. Found a library, their Wi-Fi name was the password is welcome2018. Got maps, found campground.

Thanks, every library everywhere. Except the one in Westbrook that is now closing on Saturdays, what's up with that?
posted by theora55 at 8:29 AM on April 13 [16 favorites]


The Library Book is really good and I hope it inspires some racy historical fiction about the early librarians of LA because they were amazing women.
posted by betweenthebars at 8:44 AM on April 13 [8 favorites]


Another vote for The Library Book by Susan Orlean—library history and true crime combine to form a great read!
posted by bookmammal at 8:56 AM on April 13 [1 favorite]


Books are...generally one-shot (repeated uses yield lesser utility)

"those who fail to reread are obliged to read the same story everywhere..."
posted by kaibutsu at 9:05 AM on April 13 [5 favorites]


Hating on libraries because Amazon exists is like saying your grandma's home-made apple pie is obsolete because Hostess industrial handheld fruit pie exists.
posted by Western Infidels at 9:07 AM on April 13 [26 favorites]


hippybear, your local library has a ton of online resources and ebooks. You can do most of your library activities from your phone, computer, or tablet. The only reason you have to go is to get an account. Or of course, if you just want to. I have to say your local seems pretty awesome.
posted by evilDoug at 9:17 AM on April 13 [2 favorites]


OK, yes I'm a library fanboy. However, don't let me liking them dissuade you. That'd be cutting your nose off to spite your face.
posted by evilDoug at 9:19 AM on April 13 [1 favorite]


As is sometimes said, if you suggested the public library system now it would be dismissed as a collectivist utopian fantasy.

I genuinely don't know what civilisation would look like if we were only just now proposing libraries.
posted by Merus at 9:21 AM on April 13 [2 favorites]


why don't we (or do) invest in libraries in the 'developing' world? There is all kinds of aid that is too often of short term utility, long term introducing good ideas would be the greatest help to the world.

We do. Like crazy! There's not as much money available for them as opposed to, say, dumb startups that claim they're going to get plastic out of the ocean, but there's some. In fact our own gman (RIP, miss you buddy) donated money to set up a school+library in Ethiopia. Some pix here.

Sue, who wrote this article, is a somewhat-neighbor (lives over the mountain) and she and her husband spoke at our library conference last year. She also wrote a great fiction book Summer Hours at the Robbers Library which I think kicked off some of this recent spate of writing (researching it, that is). National Library Week just wrapped up and it's been nice seeing so many people publicly speaking up about how much they love their libraries. I just started reading Susan Orlean book The Library Book and already it's so so good. Thanks for making this post. Good luck at your new job bookmammal and your new interview robocop is bleeding.
posted by jessamyn at 9:46 AM on April 13 [10 favorites]


If you’re specifically interested in libraries, then I recommend you pick Susan Orlean’s book rather than Eric Klinenberg’s. I’ve read both and while there is some good stuff in Palaces for the People, it came across quite disjointed, whereas The Library Book was more focused and, honestly, more beautiful.
posted by adrianhon at 10:56 AM on April 13 [1 favorite]


Well now I'm aware of my new gay librarian hero Tessa Kelso. What an absolute dreamboat, I will take that historical novel if you write it, betweenthebars.
posted by libraritarian at 11:16 AM on April 13 [1 favorite]


Good review article by Sue. She was our neighbor until recently, and I sometimes saw her in the Middlebury public library, where my family spent a lot of time for nearly 20 years.

We just moved to the DC area, and getting into the local public library was - naturally - one of our first priorities. No matter where I am on Earth, being in a library feels like reentering a charmed, shared space.
posted by doctornemo at 11:56 AM on April 13 [5 favorites]


Okay! I'm gonna check Susan Orlean book The Library Book out pf the library today!
posted by a humble nudibranch at 12:56 PM on April 13 [4 favorites]


I genuinely don't know what civilisation would look like if we were only just now proposing libraries.

I don't know what their history is in the East, but free libraries open to the public are actually relatively speaking a late development in Western civilization.
posted by praemunire at 1:41 PM on April 13


More great book titles about libraries Library: An The Public Library: A Photographic Essay Hardcover by Robert Dawson History by Matthew Battles, Libraries in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson, and, This Book Is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson (which is admittedly a little outdated with a whole chapter on Second Life). I read and enjoyed all four books, and added Susan Orlean's book as well as Palaces for the People.
posted by momochan at 2:59 PM on April 13 [1 favorite]


Libraries do exist in the developing world, we're not that backwards.

The trouble though is that the material isn't necessarily that current, and it can be hard to find things that are a bit more niche, especially if they're liable to be censored or banned. In Malaysia bookstores (Borders in particular) has been better at stocking more "controversial" material than public libraries who are kinda bound to a conservative agenda.

Even in more developed countries like Australia it can be hard to find stuff. A lot of the things I like to read aren't easily accessible here, the libraries here favour local content and mainstream stuff but it means that more subcultural stuff (like anything to do with Queer people of colour) with a following in the US isn't likely to be found here. Not that bookstores are necessarily more helpful in that regard - my workaround has been setting my Kindle to the US.
posted by divabat at 8:42 PM on April 13 [4 favorites]


When I was working my first three-simultaneous-adjunct-positions job and throwing all my available money at my debt, the library was my source for free entertainment. I caught up on my knowledge of film history with their DVD selection and read about a squintillion biographies. I don’t know what I would have done without it.
posted by chainsofreedom at 7:51 AM on April 14


divabat: I believe that praemunire was specifically noting that they didn't know the history of libraries outside of Europe/North America, and that (for all they know) other places have had public libraries for a much, much longer time.
posted by jb at 7:53 AM on April 14 [1 favorite]


JB: I was referring to sammyo's comment about investing in libraries in the developing world as a type of foreign aid, which felt like it implies these countries don't have libraries and the US needs to save them from that fate or something.
posted by divabat at 4:58 PM on April 14 [1 favorite]


my apologies - I misunderstood.
posted by jb at 8:55 PM on April 14


Growing up in India there was no public library - there were private ones and ones attached to universities but nothing the general public had access to. So we were members of a small private library, had access to another library through my parents' club, I made full use of my school's library but basically my parents ensured I had enough to read by simply spending a ridiculous amount on books. Obviously this was a very privileged option.

Now that live in MA I take full advantage of both the excellent Minuteman library network and the Boston Public Library. I currently have approximately 25 books checked out (no exaggeration) and since I read for at least an hour each day I intend to read each one. My toddler son goes to storytime and singalongs at the local branch - though technically these take place at a church since our branch is temporarily in a much smaller space while they renovate. I use Hoopla and Kanopy to watch good movies and while I'm currently in a physical book phase, I've borrowed many many ebooks through the Libby app. I participate in a cookbook club that my library runs and thus can meet people from the local community. I have reason to be thankful for my access to such a great library system almost every day.
posted by peacheater at 11:23 PM on April 14 [3 favorites]


I should note that the library situation in my home town became considerably better after I left.
posted by peacheater at 11:47 PM on April 14 [1 favorite]


People certainly seem happy with the new library.
posted by peacheater at 11:56 PM on April 14


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