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All Hail the PUBLIC Library

The public library is a uniquely American creation. Now we have to fight to keep it public.

| by David Morris

Is “public” now a dirty word? Fort Worth has stripped the word from its local library.

“The word ‘public’ has been removed from the name of the Fort Worth Library.
Why? Simply put, to keep up with the times.”

From the Media release on the rebranding of the Fort Worth Library

Fort Worth, you leave me speechless. You’re certainly correct about one thing. The public library is indeed an institution that has not kept up with the times. But given what has happened to our times, why do you see that as unhealthy? 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, the public library remains firmly rooted in the local community. In an age of widespread cynicism and distrust of government, the 100 percent tax supported public library has virtually unanimous and 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 on a chilly day in April 1833 the good citizens of Peterborough, New Hampshire created a radical new concept—a truly 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 boasted 188 public libraries. By 1910 all states had them. Today 9,000 central buildings plus about 7500 branches have made public libraries one of the most ubiquitous of all American institutions, exceeding Starbucks and McDonalds.

Almost two thirds of us carry library cards. At least once a year, about half of us visit a public library, many more than once. Library use varies by class and race and by age and educational level. But the majority of blacks and Latinos as well as whites, old as well as young, poor as well as rich, high school dropouts as well as university graduates, use the public library.

What Makes The Public Library Special?

When we think of libraries, we think of books and rightly so, for 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 do not borrow books or 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 they 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, 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 pack horses and mules with saddle-bags 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 Sunday. Many viewed that as sacrilege. 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. Six day, 60-hour workweeks meant that if libraries were to serve the majority of the community 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 and 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 very few libraries closed their doors during the Great Depression.* Indeed, between 1930 and 1940, the nation became home to 765 new libraries. To keep their doors open, the Cleveland public library sponsored “overdue weeks”, encouraging patrons who could afford it 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 or who simply fit the terrorist profile 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.”

Libraries make citizens of us all.

Of us all. 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 Queens Library. They’ve succeeded admirably. The Queens Library has the highest circulation rate of any public library system in the country.

The Best Deal In Town

Despite the enormous popularity and widespread use of public libraries have rarely been well funded. Robert Reagan, then Public Information Director of the City of Los Angeles Public Library offers one reason, “Everybody loves libraries, but mostly they are mute about it.” “(L)ibraries 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.

And the lights are beginning to go out. U.S. mayors report that library budgets are one of the first items on the chopping block now. Some 19 states cut funding for public libraries last year. More than half of the reductions were greater than 10 percent. Those cuts compound an often overlooked fact of life for public libraries. Operating costs are going up—electricity, maintenance, materials. The result is that even when operating budgets remain constant something has to give—fewer books or computers or fewer hours.

These budget cuts are coming just as library use soars. Economic hard times encourages people to borrow DVDs and books and newspapers rather than buy them and use computer terminals for job searches. Library usage is increasing by 15-30 percent while at the same time their budgets are being cut by 10-15 percent.

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. The public library offers concrete empirical evidence that sharing is the least expensive and most satisfying way we can improve our quality of life.

A few years ago, the Windsor, Connecticut Public Library hosted an Open House bluntly 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 but not including the much larger treasure trove of materials available through inter-library loan, another 19th century American innovation. And if someone could not get to the library, Windsor’s librarians, like those everywhere in the country, would graciously and expeditiously answer their research questions over the phone.

Today the per capita cost of the library has increased to $36 a year although the rate of increase has been much lower 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 on-line access either on-site or from their patron’s homes to thousands of newspapers and journals and reference materials. 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, Are Libraries Necessary, or a Waste of Tax Money? Because it was FOX you 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?…keeping libraries running costs big money…That’s money that could go elsewhere – like for schools, the CTA, police or pensions.”

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 used economics to justify their existence. The results are consistently eye opening. A study of Wisconsin’s libraries estimated a $4 benefit for each $1 of taxpayer money. A Vermont study found more than a $5 benefit for each $1 of taxpayer money; Indiana found a benefit of a $2.38; Florida found a benefit of $6.54 for each dollar of taxpayer money. Or to look at the benefit-cost equation from the other side, for every $1 states or cities cut from their library budgets, their households and businesses spend $2.38 to $6.54 out of their own pockets.

Consider the case of Philadelphia. In 2010 the city spent $33 million on its public libraries and 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 a 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 that 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.

Add the value of the 3.2 million reference questions answered, 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

All things public are under attack. The Fort Worth rebranding is an indication of how effective this attack has been. The city explained that it was dropping the word “public” because of its “potentially negative connotation”. The Founding Fathers would be disconsolate. 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. Cataloging, for example, has been contracted out since the Library of Congress began issuing printed catalogs.

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 expect a handsome profit on their capital. (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 insists. They are nothing of the sort to him. They are just a business.

When the level of investors’ profits depend on the difference between the budget in the contract the company signs with a city and what it actually spends on services an inherent tension exists between public good and private gain.

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, Linden 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—either by cutting services or acquisitions or by cutting staff or staff benefits. In 2007 Jackson County, Oregon contracted with LSSI to run its library system. The five year contract cut in half the amount the County had previously paid. It also cut in half the libraries’ operating hours. All libraries are now closed on Sundays.

Libraries have suffered staff reductions for several years, but when library personnel are private employees the negotiation process can become personal and adversarial, undermining morale inside and outside the library. Pezzanite vividly expressed this in-your-face attitude of librarians when he announced, “Their policies are all about job security. That’s why the profession is nervous about us. You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work.”

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 companies like LSSI 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. Too often the fight to protect libraries starts when the lights are about to go out and when they do not go out we declare a victory even thought there are fewer bulbs and their light is dimmer. Pennies more per day per library user would allow their brilliance to return.

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 table pounding, no fiery advocacy, indeed, no fire at all.

In what will undoubtedly be a protracted and bruising fight to expand America’s public libraries in a time of financial distress, librarians themselves should not be expected to take the lead. The public should.

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.

In Philadelphia grassroots organizations such as Coalition to Save the Libraries sprang up in 2008 after the city, without a formal vote of the City Council, announced it was going to close 11 library branches. Residents of 9 of the affected neighborhoods plus several city councilors filed suit, citing a 1988 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.

* The original version of this article stated that no library had closed its doors during the Great Depression. Several librarians, of course, sent me references, of course, that showed there were indeed branch closings.

_David Morris is co-founder and vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and director of its New Rules Project. You can follow David at defendingthepublicgood.org_

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Posted May 1, 2011

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