Libraries, Culture, & Democracy

Until fairly recently, libraries were only for the wealthy. The movement to found public libraries only started in the 19th century. In England, the Public Library Act of 1850 was passed, though conservatives opposed it because of the risk that it might make working class people uppity, and few cities funded them. In the US there was no national act to establish libraries, but a movement swept the country in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Boston Public Library

Boston Public Library

By 1876 there were 188 free public libraries. Between 1883 and 1929, Andrew Carnegie contributed to the founding of more than 2,500 public libraries. To a large extent, obtaining funds for a public library was spearheaded by women’s groups, who had to  demonstrate a need, find a site, and provide for ongoing funding. Now there are more public libraries in the US than there are MacDonald’s. It’s so universally expected that it can come as a huge shock when funding issues force closures.

Jackson County Libraries - Closed

Jackson County Libraries – Closed

A library system in Oregon was shut down for months because of funding issues and only reopened on a limited basis when the county government hired a for-profit company to run it for them. The article about the “book mules” delivering books in Venezuela and the donkeys carrying books in Ethiopia demonstrates the value of books when they are not otherwise available.

Libraries can be incredibly important for people who live in places where books are rare. . In Venezuela and Columbia, activists use  “book mules” to deliver books to rural areas. In Laos, a literacy charity brings books to remote villages by boat. In Kenya, camels deliver books to nomadic people in remote areas, making regular rounds. A BBC report quotes one of the men who work on this project.

We start early in the morning and work Monday to Thursday. Each box contains 200 books. One camel carries two boxes of books. Another carries the tent and the third one carries our things.

We have nine camels – three caravans. From our two headquarters, Garissa and Wajir, the caravans go to 12 different sites….

As the camels arrive, the children are actually waiting for us. The day we come is fixed and they are expecting us. The schools that we serve have told us that already there is a big impact – their standard of education has improved and they did well in the national examinations.

In Ethiopia, donkeys pull a caravan full of books


We tend to take access to books and public libraries for granted, but even in the developed world, libraries can face closure. In the UK, 200 libraries were closed due to the government’s austerity program. Author Zadie Smith analyzed the issue in the New York Review of Books, arguing that Keynesian economic theory suggests some goods should be made public and managed by the government because there is no market solution that will work as well.

It would seem the most obvious thing in the world to say that the reason why the market is not an efficient solution to libraries is because the market has no use for a library. But it seems we need, right now, to keep re-stating the obvious. There aren’t many institutions left that fit so precisely Keynes’s definition of things that no one else but the state is willing to take on. Nor can the experience of library life be recreated online. It’s not just a matter of free books. A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal.

I don’t think the argument in favor of libraries is especially ideological or ethical. I would even agree with those who say it’s not especially logical. I think for most people it’s emotional. Not logos or ethos but pathos. This is not a denigration: emotion also has a place in public policy. We’re humans, not robots. The people protesting the closing of Kensal Rise Library love that library. They were open to any solution on the left or on the right if it meant keeping their library open. They were ready to Big Society the hell out of that place. A library is one of those social goods that matter to people of many different political attitudes. All that the friends of Kensal Rise and Willesden Library and similar services throughout the country are saying is: these places are important to us. We get that money is tight, we understand that there is a hierarchy of needs, and that the French Market or a Mark Twain plaque are not hospital beds and classroom size. But they are still a significant part of our social reality, the only thing left on the high street that doesn’t want either your soul or your wallet.

If the losses of private companies are to be socialized within already struggling communities the very least we can do is listen to people when they try to tell us where in the hierarchy of their needs things like public space, access to culture, and preservation of environment lie. “But I never use the damn things!” says Mr. Notmytaxes, under the line. Sir, I believe you. However. British libraries received over 300 million visits last year, and this despite the common neglect of the various councils that oversee them. In North West London people are even willing to form human chains in front of them. People have taken to writing long pieces in newspapers to “defend” them. Just saying the same thing over and over again. Defend our libraries. We like libraries. Can we keep our libraries? We need to talk about libraries. Pleading, like children. Is that really where we are?


Libraries have a lot of built-in contradictions. They are both a source of warm-and-fuzzy feelings and of a certain amount of anxiety about rules and overdue fines. They are democratic institutions, but they can also be palatial, formal, imposing places that might not be welcoming to all. They are traditional – preserving culture – but also forward looking, to the point that traditionalists like Sally Tisdale are annoyed by it.

Umberto Eco wrote about two kinds of libraries in “De Bibliotheca.” (Bostonia Spring1993: 57-60). One is a nightmare with a great many rules. The information desk for readers must be inaccessible. Borrowing should be discouraged. Interlibrary loans should be impossible, or take months. Hours of opening should coincide with working hours. Refreshments of all kinds will be forbidden. To the extent possible there will be no toilets. Ideally, no reader should be allowed inside the library.

Then he describes library utopia. Apart from providing good espresso and comfortable chairs, these libraries encourage exploration. “The whole idea of a library is based on a misunderstanding: that the reader goes into the library to find a book whose title he knows. . . . The essential function of a library . . . is to discover books of whose existence the reader has no idea.” This discovery is a collaboration between the seeker and the shelves, a mix of deliberation and serendipity. “This sort of library is made for me. I can pass a whole joyful day there. I read the papers, I take some books to the bar, I fetch others, I make discoveries. I entered to work, in true empirical English fashion; instead I find myself among commentators on Aristotle, I wind up on the wrong floor, I go into a section, say Medicine, in which I never thought to stray, and suddenly I stumble upon works about Galen, full of philosophical references. This way, a library is an adventure” (59).

British Museum Reading Room

British Museum Reading Room

Not long ago, a big library consortium commissioned a market survey that found that people by and large have good feelings about libraries but they were upset to discover that most people think of books when they think of libraries.

It would be delightful to assume that when respondents say “books,” what they really mean to say is that books, in essence, stand for those intangible qualities of information familiarity, information trust and information quality. The data did not reveal it. We looked hard. We reviewed thousands of responses to the open-ended questions that inquired about positive library associations and library purpose. We searched for words and phrases that included mentions of “quality,” “trust,” “knowledge,” “learning,” “education,” etc. We found mentions of each, but they were relatively few in number. “Books” dominated – across all regions surveyed and across all age groups.

So in answer to this “problem,” they suggest leveraging this archaic belief into a stronger brand for the library – because libraries aren’t supposed to be about books, they’re meant to be about information.

This need to focus on a kind of usefulness that is more than merely providing books goes back a long way. At the beginning of the twentieth century it had a name: the “fiction problem.” Public libraries, that were intended to elevate and educate the masses, had trouble discouraging their patrons from choosing fiction. At the end of the 19th century, the library director in Allegheny, Pennsylvania reported he had successfully rid his library of Horatio Alger stories and other popular material, saying “It is certainly not the function of the public library to foster the mind-weakening habit of novel-reading among the very classes – the uneducated, busy or idle – whom it is the duty of the public library to lift to a higher plane of thinking.” Reading fiction was not only unproductive it was dangerously addictive: “once the habit . . . is formed, it seems as difficult to throw off as the opium habit.” In the same vein, in 1906 the Toronto Public library’s annual report bragged about their success in decreasing in the circulation of fiction as if they had averted a public health crisis: “there is an indulgence in the reading of trashy novels which is destructive to the mind.”

Fortunately, most libraries got over the notion that they were supposed to improve people by force. In fact, the public library has provided a diverse banquet of books that suit many tastes. One library historian says libraries have served “the democracies of culture” by allowing people to choose their own books and “evolve multiple canons unique to their own culture.”

Libraries, Freedom to Read, and Civil Liberties

Libraries support uncensored access to information and strongly support the idea that privacy is a necessary condition to the freedom to read without fear of consequences. The idea is basically this: people need to be able to explore ideas, even reprehensible ideas. They should be free to read and to think what they like. Reading can never be a criminal offense. However, books can be controversial, as Banned Books Week reminds us every fall. And almost all public libraries provide access to the Internet. While reading itself cannot be a crime, crimes can be committed on computers connected to the Internet.

Here are some scenarios to think about:

  • pornography on the Internet – obscene speech is not protected by the first amendment, but filters that block porn also block perfectly legitimate sites. Libraries have resisted installing filters because they block access to sites on things like breast cancer and information about sexuality. Yet sometimes people use library computers to look at porn, which is offensive to library users. In one system, library staff sued their own library for creating a “hostile work environment.” What to do?
  • people are used to giving up privacy in exchange for personalization. They may want to create lists of the books they’ve read or have a “my library” function that records what they’ve checked out and use that information to make recommendations as Amazon does. They might be interested in knowing which books are checked out the most. Librarians want to protect privacy, but with companies like Google and Facebook routinely keeping information and using it to supposedly “improve the customer experience” – e.g. customize advertising messages – library users don’t always want privacy.
  • libraries want to give teenagers the same privacy they afford adults, but adults often pay the bills when books are lost or overdue. How would you respond if you asked a librarian for a list of books checked out by your scatterbrained fourteen year old and were told “I can’t do that. You’ll have to ask your child”?
  • police in Boston got a tip that a bomb had been placed in a public building. Believing there was relevant information on a computer in a public library, they went to the library and tried to remove the computer without a warrant. The librarian pointed out that if she complied, she would break a Massachusetts state law. Her abiding by the law caused an outcry.
  • a Vermont librarian demanded a warrant when police wanted to seize library computers, suspecting a teen had used one to communicate with her abductor. The girl was later found dead. The information on the computer does not appear to have been material to case, yet at the time police felt the girl’s life was at risk.