Monday, May 13, 2013

"I don't need libraries so nobody else does" - All op-ed columnists

I just read another story about the irrelevance of public libraries by a privileged, white man who has never stepped foot in the library he is writing about. In this lame op-ed in the Huffington Post, Michael Rosemblum has decided to go ahead and describe the future of libraries by using himself as the sole example of people who use libraries: "Even though I lived right across the street from it for many years, I never went inside. I never sat in its reading room. I never checked out a book. I never explored its stacks to go through old volumes of bound periodicals in some research project." So that means that no one did, or at least no one worth mentioning.

These "libraries in crisis" articles are published every few months by all sorts of forward-thinking writers and are meant to make some sort of cultural commentary on the state of society. What these stories about the obsolete nature of libraries never do is take into account all of the people who are not like the author. These authors have decided that we all don't need libraries for the following reasons: The author can afford to pay for the internet and any media subscriptions he or she needs,  the author can afford to buy books, the author is employed, the author is literate and went to college, the author has access to cultural institutions, the author remembers when libraries had card catalogs and now they don't, the author may or may not have children but in any event kids use iPads, and of course Google.

All of these reasons are cited again and again across internet news outlets whenever a library near a writer's home is being built, remodeled, or changes in some way. And while all of these reasons for the unnecessary nature of libraries might add up for the author or people just like the author, for many people the library is something wholly different and completely necessary.  

For many people, the library is a lifeline to news and information, education, unemployment resources, government assistance programs, technology training, and career development. It is a place that parents can take their children (for free) that provides them with literacy programs taught by professional librarians, books, technology resources, and a safe space to learn and engage with others. It is a place for students to go for homework help and tutoring after school, and to hang out with friends off of the street. It is a place for anyone. And in New York City, where Rosenblum lives, there were over 16 million visits to the New York Public Library last year. Certainly there are people who can afford not to go to libraries. But for most people it is a place they cannot afford to be without. And in a democracy, we allow access to information and knowledge to all of our citizens.

Kids on computers at a library, what?!

As for the argument that because of the internet we don't need libraries, it's the same as saying that because we can buy books we also don't need libraries. Just because the internet exists and we can get information faster than ever doesn't mean that everyone has access to this.Wireless internet connections are not currently free, computers are not currently free, and many reputable news sources and research databases are not currently free. And even when information is "free" we are still paying with our personal information. The library is one of the few places where people can truly find information for free because of the American Library Association's Electronic Computer Privacy Act which protects the privacy of personal records and internet search histories.

Then there's Rosenblum's argument that because libraries are no longer just about books they aren't really libraries anymore: "Library: a place for gathering people, giving people the opportunity to encounter each other....Well, there you have it. Another 3,000 year old institution killed by the web." I understand that change is difficult to adapt to. But to me, the fact that cities and towns across America are dedicating libraries as community spaces in addition to places that house books, technology, and other media, is really smart. Public libraries are for everyone, and by evolving libraries are reflecting more users' needs.

One of the biggest reasons for the idea that libraries aren't needed, aside from the fact that these writers are openly omitting any portion of the population that are unlike themselves, is that libraries are romanticized. Writers, who are ironically dealing with many of the same issues as libraries when it comes to content dissemination, like to remember a simpler time when libraries only served one purpose (which was never really the case). Categorizing public spaces makes it easier to think about complicated issues like access to technology, poverty and wage discrepancies, social factors and privilege. But to determine that rather than allow libraries to change based on the needs of many, they should instead not exist based on the nostalgic notions of a few, is a very narrow way to think about not only libraries but the world.  Libraries are changing and that's a good thing for everyone, even the people writing about how much they don't need them.

No one normal misses this.


  1. Great thoughts. Not everyone has a pc. Also, what about the trained librarians that personally help you find materials that are useful for your particular project? You can't get that on the web.

    1. Yes, you're right! Librarians offer professional information services to anyone who needs help, I should have mentioned more of that :)