“Don’t get mad,” Spouse said, “but I have a question. Are libraries as important now as they were twenty years ago, with the internet and Amazon and everything? I know we love them, but do we need them?”
He asked this because we were discussing a ballot measure that would increase our county’s sales tax by .75 of a percentage point. That money is designated for library costs and staffing; the unspoken promise is that libraries countywide will reopen on Mondays if it passes. Since the town where I live as already added a topper to the sales tax, it could mean that in my home town, sales tax will meet (or break) 10%. That’s outrageous. It’s inconvenient for me and it’s painful for people who make, say, minimum wage.
Spouse’s question stopped me in my tracks. Instead of spouting off my immediate, emotional response, which would have been something like,”Of course we need libraries!” I said, “I’ll have to think about that. Then I thought about it, for two days. Really, with the internet at our fingertips, Google and Amazon ready to sell us any book some for less than a dollar, who needs a library?
Here’s what I came up with:
1. The Internet. Yes, it’s all right at our fingertips… unless it isn’t. Yes, there still is a digital divide. In west county, there are people who can’t afford the internet, and those who can’t get wireless or in rare cases even dial-up where they live. With more offices laying off human staff and requiring people to do business with them online, the library is a satellite office for… well, everything. There is no other place where people can get access for free. (Another reason why libraries should be open on Mondays.)
2. Reference books. You want to talk about something that’s expensive? Reference books. While I know many of us have decided a quick skim of wikipedia counts as “research” these days, that is not a good thing. Even if, like me, you want to own your books, you might not want to buy every reference book on the American Civil War, steam technology, or Percy Shelley. And, speaking of unsung superheroes, reference librarians are awesome.
Once again you have a financial divide; it’s working people or fixed-income people, not hedge fund managers, who can’t afford to buy a $90 book because it’s got the best plates of Caravaggio’s work in it.
3. About those books. Sure, Amazon will sell you a book for ninety-five cents. It’s just not the book you want. The best seller, in hardback, will still cost you more than $20 new. And more and more communities don’t even have the chance to buy that hardcover book because there are no bookstores where they are. Some of these are cities like Salinas, California, but many are small rural communities who count on the Bookmobile to keep them connected. Libraries are branching out and exploring digital documents and e-books, it doesn’t always have to be a hard copy. And it doesn’t have to cost you each time you want to read one.
4. Inter-library loan program. They can get you almost any book. Yeah, you might be on a waiting list, but they will get it to you.
5. Social meeting space with a purpose. Libraries have meeting space available; they often provide free programs about varieties of topics. They have roofs and heating. They are safe, comfortable places to go to read, to browse, to use a computer, even to visit.
6. Child care. Libraries and librarians hate this, and rightly so, but for some parents, in school districts that don’t have after-school care, the library is a safe place for their children to wait until they are off work.
Do we need libraries? It depends on our values. More and more, our values are shifting to a sort of eighteenth-century European style, where certain things; access, education, justice, and good health were available only to an aristocratic minority. The New World flavor of that is “a monied aristocratic minority.” If we are true to our stated values, as a democratic society, then some things should be available to everyone. A library is a delivery system for access, information, education; and a way to provide a voice for people who don’t have other avenues.
And let me spend one paragraph indulging my paranoid side. Large information corporations like Google and Amazon (and Comcast and Time Warner) would like us all to believe that they can meet our needs. We can all sit swilling fine wine at the local bar, connecting with some scrap of data that we need from our smart device. We don’t need to talk to each other, we don’t need to ask questions, and we only need that tiny little scrap. For God’s sake don’t go looking for context, or follow some interesting point the first scrap of data makes. Here, we’ll even funnel down your search options so you never see anything that might challenge you or upset you. They certainly don’t want you walking into a building filled with data storage devices that might shake up your view point or make you ask a question.
So, even though it does drive up our sales tax, I will vote Yes on Measure M. Do we need libraries? I’ve thought about it. My answer’s “Yes.”