"The word 'public' has been removed from the name of the Fort Worth Library.
Why? Simply put, to keep up with the times."
-Press release regarding the rebranding of the Fort Worth Library
In an age of greed and selfishness, the public library stands as an enduring monument to the values of cooperation and sharing. In an age where global corporations stride the earth, public libraries remains firmly rooted in local communities. In an age of widespread cynicism and distrust of government, the tax-supported public library has widespread, enthusiastic support.
This is not the time to take the word “public” out of the public library. It is time to put it in capitals.
The public library is a singularly American invention. Europeans had subscription libraries for 100 years before the United States was born. But in April 1833, the good citizens of Peterborough, New Hampshire created a radically new concept—a public library. All town residents, regardless of income, had the right to freely share the community’s stored knowledge. Their only obligation was to return the information on time and in good condition, allowing others to exercise that same right.
By the 1870s, 11 states together boasted 188 public libraries. By 1910, all states had them. Today, 9,000 central buildings and about 7500 branches have made public libraries one of the most ubiquitous of all American institutions, more widespread than Starbucks or McDonalds.
Almost two thirds of us carry library cards. About half of us visit a public library at least once a year, many of us much more than once. Library use varies by class and race and by age and educational level, but the majority Americans—blacks and Latinos and whites, old and young, poor and rich, high school dropouts and university graduates, use the public library.
Protecting the Right to Know
When we think of libraries, we tend to think of books, and rightly so: Public libraries are by far our largest bookstores, and a majority of the 2.5 billion items checked out are still books. Indeed, for every two books sold in America, one book is borrowed from the public library.
But libraries are much more than bookstores. About 30 percent of the people who visit libraries don't borrow books or even DVDs. For a greater number of people than we might care to believe, the library serves as a warm and dry sanctuary, a place they can sit without fear of being bothered. For others, it is a refuge from loneliness, a place full of hustle and bustle, where you can attend a concert, or hear a lecture, or read a magazine free of charge.
Since its inception, the American public library’s prime directive has been to protect the public’s access to information. In 1894, this emphasis on the right to know led Denver’s public library to pioneer the concept of open stacks. For the first time, patrons had the freedom to browse. In the 1930s, the right to know led Kentucky’s librarians to ride horses and mules, their saddlebags filled with books, into remote sections of the state.
In 1872, the right to know led the Worcester Massachusetts Public Library to open its doors on Sundays. Many viewed that as sacrilege, but head librarian Samuel Green calmly responded that a library intended to serve the public could do so only if it were accessible when the public could use it. The six-day, 60-hour workweeks common at the time meant that if libraries were to serve the majority in the communities, they must be open on Sundays. Referring to those who might not spend their Sundays at worship, Green impishly added, “If they are not going to save their souls in the church they should improve their minds in the library.”
More than 125 years later, Sundays remain the busiest day of the week for public libraries; Sunday closings are the first sign of fiscal distress.
By 1935, public libraries were serving 60 percent of the population. They had so proven their value that few libraries closed their doors even during the Great Depression. To stay open, the Cleveland public library sponsored “overdue weeks,” encouraging patrons who could afford to do so to keep their library books until they were overdue, allowing the library to collect the 12 cents per week fine. In a time of soup lines and economic destitution, the library was known as the “bread line of the spirit."
Its mission of protecting our access to information has often led the public library to confront authorities that would obstruct that access.
In 1953, at the height of McCarthism, when magazine like the Nation were banned in many places and William Faulkner’s novels were seized as pornographic literature, the American Library Association (ALA) adopted a Library Bill of Rights. “The freedom to read is of little consequence when expended on the trivia,” it insisted. “Ideas can be dangerous … Freedom itself is a dangerous way of life, but it is ours.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, when the federal government began giving taxpayer-financed data to private companies, who then copyrighted the information and charged higher prices for access, the library community expressed its displeasure. Then ALA President Patricia Shuman declared, “privatization has resulted in less access and higher cost for the America public. If we accept the commodization of information…we will diminish the public’s right to know.”
Just as fiercely as public librarians fight to protect our access to information, they fight to protect our personal information from prying eyes. In the 1980s, when the FBI tried to turn librarians into spies by asking them to identify those who checked out military or subversive books, Americans librarians firmly rejected the request.
Sometimes, protecting the people’s right to information means not only confronting the authority of government but of parents. A few years ago the director of the Elkhart Indiana Public Library explained, “Sometimes a parent will get angry at a book a kid has brought home. And the parent will bring in the kid’s card and tell us he’s returning it. We mail the card back to the child. It’s his card. The child can return it, but no one can return it for the child.”
This month the Queens Public Library, located in one of the most ethnically diverse and immigrant-rich communities in the world—its web site and phone answering system are in six languages—will begin allowing the "matricula consular," a personal identification card issued to immigrants by their consulates, to be used as a valid document to obtain a library card.
"At Queens Library, we strive to make our collections and services available to all," said Maureen O'Connor, director of programs and services for the library. They’ve succeeded admirably: The Queens Library has the highest circulation rate of any public library system in the country.
Libraries in Danger When We Need Them Most
Despite their enormous popularity and widespread use, public libraries have rarely been well funded. Librarian Robert Reagan offers one reason: “Everybody loves libraries, but mostly they are mute about it.” Libraries "are plagued by the image that we are nice, but not essential” one librarian complained to the Washington Post. People will defend their libraries, but only when the lights are about to go out.
Now, the lights are beginning to go out. U.S. mayors facing budget shortfalls report that library budgets are one of the first items on the chopping block. Some 19 states cut funding for public libraries last year. More than half of the reductions were greater than 10 percent. Meanwhile, operating costs—electricity, maintenance, materials—are going up. The result is that even when operating budgets remain constant, something—books or computers or service hours—has to give.
These budget cuts are coming just as library use is soaring. Economic hard times encourage people to borrow DVDs, books, and newspapers rather than buy them, and to use public computer terminals for job searches. Library usage is increasing by 15-30 percent while budgets are being cut by 10-15 percent.
All That We Share
Welcome to a new kind of movement—one that reshapes how we think about ownership and cooperation.
This is truly a case of penny wise and pound foolish. By any cost-benefit calculus, dollars spent on public libraries are a wise investment.
A few years ago, the Windsor, Connecticut Public Library hosted an Open House named, “I Got My Money’s Worth at the Windsor Public Library.” At that time, for about $26 per person per year, Windsor residents could borrow from more than $7 million worth of resources, including books, records, tapes, compact discs, and videos—not even counting the much larger treasure trove of materials available through inter-library loan, another 19th century American innovation.
Today the per capita cost of the Windsor library has increased to $36 a year, although the rate of increase has been much slower than inflation. Meanwhile, the information and resources available have soared dramatically. Over 80 percent of all public libraries now have publicly available computers. They have supplemented their print media with free online access to thousands of newspapers and journals and reference materials, either on-site or from their patrons' homes. And today most librarians will answer questions not only in person and by phone but also via email. Last year they collectively answered about 300 million questions.
In 2010 the Chicago affiliate of FOX TV News aired a segment called, "Are Libraries Necessary, or a Waste of Tax Money?" You may already know the narrative: “They eat up millions of your hard earned tax dollars. It's money that could be used to keep your child's school running. So with the internet and e-books, do we really need millions for libraries?... should these institutions—that date back to 1900 B.C.—be on the way out?”
Mary A. Dempsey, the head of the Chicago Public Library System delivered a classic librarian’s response—fact-filled, to-the-point, and devastatingly effective:
Let me speak about the Chicago Public Library, which serves 12 million visitors per year. No other cultural, educational, entertainment, or athletic organization in Chicago can make that claim.
The Chicago Public Library, through its 74 locations, serves every neighborhood of our city, is open 7 days per week at its three largest locations, 6 days per week at 71 branch libraries, and 24/7 on its website, which is filled with online research collections, downloadable content, reference help, and access to vast arrays of the Library’s holdings and information.
Last year, Chicagoans checked out nearly 10 million items...
The Chicago Public Library provided 3.8 million free one hour Internet sessions to the people of Chicago in 2009. The Internet has made public libraries more relevant, not less, as your story suggests. There continues to exist in this country a vast digital divide. It exists along lines of race and class and is only bridged consistently and equitably through the free access provided by the Chicago Public Library and all public libraries in this nation. Some 60 percent of the individuals who use public computers a Chicago’s libraries are searching for and applying for jobs.
Chicago’s schools offer the shortest school day in the nation. As schools slash their budgets for school libraries and shorten their classroom teaching time, thousands of children flock to Chicago’s public libraries every day after school, in the evening, and on weekends for homework assistance from our librarians and certified teachers hired by the public library.
Only recently have public libraries needed to use economics to justify their existence, but the results are consistently eye opening. A Florida study found that for each dollar of taxpayer money spent on libraries, communities received $6.54 in benefits. A study of Wisconsin’s libraries estimated a $4 benefit for each $1 of taxpayer money; one in Indiana estimated $2.38 in benefits; in Vermont, it was $5. In other words, for every $1 states or cities cut from their library budgets, households and businesses spend $2.38 to $6.54 more from their own pockets.
Consider the case of Philadelphia. In 2010 the city spent $33 million on its public libraries, which received another $12 million from other sources. That same year the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania undertook a detailed analysis of the economic impact of the public library.
Among other things, it found that within 1/4 mile of one of Philadelphia’s 54 branches, the value of a home rose by $9,630. Overall, Philadelphia’s public libraries added $698 million to home values—which in turn generated an additional $18.5 million in property taxes to the City and School District each year. That benefit alone recouped more than half of the city’s investment.
Add to that, the value of 6.5 million items borrowed each year, a value Fels calculated at more $100 million; the value of the 3.2 million reference questions answered; the value of the 1.2 million times people used computer terminals to access information outside the library; and the millions of times people read materials inside the library but did not borrow them.
Add the value of the lessons in computer literacy and English as a second language of after school tutoring.
And then add the hard to quantify intangibles: a safe and warm refuge, concerts and lectures, camaraderie.
Even the most Scrooge-like conservative would conclude that Philadelphia should increase, not decrease, its investment in its public libraries.
Trying To Take The Public Out Of Public Libraries
Recently, the idea of public ownership has been under attack; Fort Worth's example shows how effective that attack has been. The city explained that it was dropping the word “public” from the name of its library system because of its “potentially negative connotation.” John Adams wrote in 1776, “There must be a positive passion for the public good, the public interest … established in the minds of the people, or there can be no republican government, nor any real liberty: and this public passion must be superior to all private passions.” Thomas Jefferson agreed, “I profess… that to be false pride which postpones the public good to any private or personal considerations.”
Would it be improper for me to mention the Forth Worth rebranding initiative was mostly paid for by a large oil drilling company?
An increasing number of library systems have gone beyond name changing to actual privatization of ever-larger parts of their library operations. The biggest player in the library privatization game is Library Systems & Services (LSSI), founded in 1981 to take advantage of President Reagan’s initiative to privatize government services. LSSI now privately manages more than 60 public libraries nationwide and now trails only Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City as an operator of library branches.
For many years, libraries have outsourced some operations. But the new wave of privatization goes far beyond simple contracting out for services and raises fundamental questions. For example, LSSI’s contract with Santa Clarita, California gives LSSI control of all hiring and materials purchasing.
Privatization can undermine the public library’s mission: protecting the public’s access to information. The public library is a non-profit organization controlled by representatives of the users of the library; the mission of private companies is to maximize profits. They are controlled by representatives of their investors. LSSI, for example, is owned by a private equity fund, Islington Capital Partners, whose investors surely expect a handsome profit on their investment. (The company does not disclose its earnings.)
LSSI’s Chief Executive Frank A. Pezzanite is straightforward about how he views public libraries. “Somehow they have been put in the category of a sacred organization,” he says. To him, they are just a business.
Private companies insist they operate more efficiently than a public non-profit, but that is problematic. After all, LSSI charges administrative fees as high as 15 percent. When the city of Linden, New Jersey ended its LSSI contract early, Mayor John Gregorio maintained the city would save $300,000—about 15 percent of the library budget—by running the library itself.
Private companies cut costs the same way the public sector cuts costs—by cutting services, acquisitions, staff, or staff benefits. In 2007 Jackson County, Oregon contracted with LSSI to run its library system. The five-year contract was for half the amount the county had previously paid to run its libraries. It also cut in half the libraries’ operating hours. All libraries are now closed on Sundays.
A truly public library is there for the long term. A private company has a short-term view. The Paterson, New Jersey library board considered an LSSI proposal but instead found a new automation-savvy director, Cindy Czesak. "I'd have no trouble hiring LSSI to do consulting, but I have real questions about them running a whole system," says Czesak, a former New Jersey Library Association President. "I think they worry less about developing long-term relationships within the community."
As I’ve observed, librarians have often stood up to authority when it came to protecting their patrons’ privacy or access to information. When public librarians go to work for private companies, they often lose job protection. It will be much harder for them to take a principled stand when they risk their jobs.
We need to fight the privatization of the public library while at the same time defending and nourishing our existing libraries.
A few weeks ago the nation celebrated National Library Week. You didn’t know? Few did. A search of more than 500 U.S. papers via Nexis came up with only a few dozen news items on the subject. The vast majority consisted of a couple of lines about an event at the local library. At a time when public libraries are fighting for their very existence there was no fiery advocacy, indeed, no fire at all.
Because most libraries get 90 percent of their funding from local taxes, grassroots initiative can have a major impact. When activists have managed to put a library funding measure one the ballot, they usually win. In 2010, some 87 percent of these ballot initiatives were approved across the country.
We need a grassroots effort to defend our public libraries, an effort that can and should be part of a growing nationwide and international effort to defend the public sphere itself. Such efforts have begun.
In Bedford, Texas, after a community-wide petition campaign to oppose library outsourcing gathered 1,700 signatures in four days, city council members voted 4-3 to reject privatization.
51 Ways to Spark a Commons Revolution
What you can do, alone and with others, to share life.
In 2008, without a formal vote of the City Council, Philadelphia announced it was going to close 11 library branches. Grassroots organizations such as the Coalition to Save the Libraries sprang up, and residents of the affected neighborhoods along with several city councilors filed suit, citing an ordinance that no city-owned facility may close, be abandoned, or go into disuse without City Council approval. After two days of hearings packed with library supporters, and just hours before the mandated closure, Judge Idee Fox granted an injunction against the closures.
In her ruling Judge Fox made clear the city’s decision was about more than money, “The decision to close these eleven library branches is more than a response to a financial crisis; it changes the very foundation of our City.”
Fort Worth got it wrong. We need to put the PUBLIC back into public library.
Bill McKibben: We've been privatizing our way to disaster. It's time to chart a new course.
- Advice on how to govern our commons by Nobel winner Elinor Ostrom.
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