It may not be what you think.
By Antonio D'Ambrosio
If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.—Cicero
I was eight years old when I got my first library card. I remember the day as clearly as any early memory I equate with being free. The card was like a golden key that unlocked the doors of the past, present, and future. In the library, I felt alive in every corner of the world. It provided opportunities otherwise denied my hamlet of working class immigrants, caulking the gaps left by an inadequate education and narrow possibilities. It’s where I learned to dream of alternatives. It was my personal workshop where I could craft my own ideas about life.
And my experience was by no means unique. Edward Paulino, a professor of history at John Jay College in New York, grew up in the cramped, economically depressed, largely immigrant neighborhood of the Lower East Side. “I found refuge in my local public library,” he says. “Public libraries are the urban equivalent of public parks. Just as tracts of land were designated for use by everyday folks and not the elite, the public library represents the same function. It’s so free and democratic. It’s a kind of club where everyone can be a member and you don’t need any kind of security clearance.”
The public library is a wholly American invention advocating self-determination. While Europeans established subscription libraries a century before the formation of the United States, the people of Peterborough, New Hampshire, established the first public library in April 1833 (the Boston Public Library, America’s first large public library, was not legally established until 1852). Everyone had access to the town’s collective knowledge, regardless of income. The only requirement: Return the materials in good condition and on time so that others may benefit. Since then, the library has become a key pillar in a free people’s participation in democracy.
“I like to refer to public libraries as the most democratic of the institutions government has created,” says Molly Raphael, the president of the American Library Association. In fact, Benjamin Franklin, considered the father of libraries, saw them as “social libraries” where all people were free to participate and share.
Yet today, in the wake of an inexhaustible economic crisis and the reactionary assault on everything public, the public library is under attack.
Local governments across the United States—from New York City to Detroit, and from Denver to Seattle—are slashing library budgets and closing libraries. This threatens to wall off knowledge, restrict access to the Internet, and shutter a valuable communal meeting place. This year, nineteen states are cutting some funding for public libraries, many by more than 10 percent. New York City, which boasts one of the most extensive public library systems in the country, recently closed fourteen branches, and 300 people lost their jobs.
These cuts will disproportionately punish poor and working class people.
“The public library represents the most powerful and cost-effective wealth-transfer mechanism ever invented,” writes T. J. Stiles, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer. “As generations have learned, the aisle between the shelves is a corridor out of poverty, a bypass around inadequate schools, an expressway that adds momentum to even a first-rate education.”
In this age of the Internet and social media, some question the relevance of libraries, even declaring them obsolete. In reality, they are more important than ever.
“Libraries, especially for working people, remain intellectual and cultural lifelines,” says musician and educator Martin Perna. “Given the vast discrepancies in net access for poor, rural, and working class communities of color, libraries now serve as primary points for youth to use the Internet with a broadband connection on something other than a tiny phone screen.”
Raphael adds, “Sixty-five percent of public libraries report that they are the only place in the community where there is free access to the Internet.”
This service becomes even more vital during an economic downturn. Many job applications are available only online. Raphael cites what is a now a common example: Someone is directed to the library to use the computers to search and apply for work; the person has never used a computer before, but with the library staff’s help, the person applies for a job and gets it.
Detroit resident Erin Carter looks for jobs using computers at the Chase branch in northwest Detroit, which is under threat of closure. “There is so much stuff closing down,” says Carter, twenty-two. “I don’t know where to go.”
Since I love going to new libraries, I take a trip to Queens and visit branch libraries, including those in Jackson Heights, Forest Hills, and Far Rockaway.
At the Jackson Heights branch, I meet parent Gail Montemayor.
“Public libraries provide one of the only free learning activities,” she tells me. “They facilitate a type of social interaction that is healthy and virtually obsolete in this wireless age. I take my twenty-two-month-old daughter to the library regularly. The library is a cost-effective way of finding books that she will enjoy many times over.” And Montemayor makes the point that “libraries bridge the gap between households that cannot afford a private collection of children’s books in their homes and those that can.”
Johnita Anthony, another Jackson Heights parent, talks about the role libraries played in her life. “The libraries were my study hall teaching me responsibility, respecting and enjoying the art of others, learning the Dewey Decimal system, learning how to research, taking out books on my own and returning them on time,” she says. Anthony now fears her young daughter will miss out on these life lessons.
“Four Nobel Prize winners, including physicist Richard Feynman, came out of the Far Rockaway neighborhood,” Michael Spudic tells me. He used to live in Far Rockaway but now resides in Forest Hills. He praises the neighborhood public library for offering “a world of books and knowledge that is demonstrably colorblind” and “a place to find solace, comfort, and truth in a community space uniquely to be had.”
When I spoke with some of the laid-off employees of the New York City library system, it’s this loss of a respected community space that they mentioned to me above all. Losing a branch library, they said, cost so much more than a place to borrow books. Also at stake is the disappearance of a town square, a free space open to all, regardless of race, class, or any other social barrier.
Public libraries also serve to counter a broad campaign of intense consumer marketing that tricks us into believing we are more empowered because we can individually connect anytime, anywhere. But with the demise of bookstores, social service institutions, and other physical spaces where people gather and search out information, news, and media in whatever form, there is a social breakdown and a loss of cultural exchange. Confounding this is a peculiar confinement of curiosity: At the library, you have physical interaction with the library staff, meet new people in the community, and scan the stacks looking for one thing yet discovering something else—the hard-to-find book, the obscure title, a new idea. This stands in stark contrast to the passive interaction with a computer and the algorithm’s spitting out suggestions based on what people similar to you purchased.
Another key aspect of the public library mission is to defend free speech and intellectual freedom. With programs like “Banned Books Week,” libraries are on the front lines of defending the rights of people to examine unpopular points of view so they can make their own informed decisions.
Librarians also have performed a brave role in regards to the Patriot Act, drawing attention to Section 215, which permits the FBI to order librarians and bookstore owners to disclose titles borrowed or bought. And when the FBI imposed a gag order, librarians protested that as well.
Despite the assaults, libraries remain popular with the American public. Thirty-one percent of adults rank the library at the top of their list of tax-supported services, according to the American Library Association. Ninety-three percent believe that library services need to remain free. And two-thirds of Americans carry a library card, according to a recent report the group issued. Still, the report concludes that libraries are easy targets for many state and local budget-cutters, ranking second only to cutting maintenance and services at parks and gardens.
One argument library proponents might want to employ with those fixated on cost-benefit analysis is this one: Libraries yield a sizeable return.
In “The Economic Value of the Free Library of Philadelphia,” the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government proved their economic worth. According to the study, the library in Philadelphia alone created more than $30 million worth of economic value to the city in fiscal 2010 and had a particularly strong impact on business development and employment. The study found that an “estimated 8,600 businesses could not have been started, sustained, or grown without the resources respondents acquired at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Direct economic impact: Almost $4 million.”
The current crisis presents a great opportunity for libraries to creatively respond and find new ways to connect with people. Libraries across the country are doing just that, as they continue to build a compelling case that they provide a public service as essential as any other.
The Loft at a public library in Charlotte, North Carolina, offers creative spaces designed for collaborative activity, such as recording and animation studios.
The Palm Beach County library system in Florida provides specialized “Government Research Services” information via a library-created Web portal that more than 45,000 patrons use.
Librarian Nate Hill at the Brooklyn Public Library envisions “urban library outposts and storefront library service points.” And he sees the library’s open space as “easily transformable: one moment a silent reading room, another moment a performance art space, another moment a forum for a community group meeting.”
Around the country, communities both small and large have pushed back against the cuts and closures. Take Oakland, California. When it became clear that the city’s favored budgetary scenario called for mass library closings, a coalition came together called Save Oakland Libraries. The group devised clever and engaging ways that showed elected officials just how important their branch libraries were. Supporters engaged in a mock funeral procession, sponsored a fourteen-hour read-in outside of City Hall, held a zombie walk, and organized a bike ride for the libraries. The result was that local elected officials this summer agreed to keep open all of Oakland’s fourteen libraries.
Throughout my life I’ve repeatedly tapped the public library. It nourishes my creativity and always leads me to unexpected discoveries. I can’t envision my life without it. The library unites me with my fellow citizens through the collective knowledge stored inside. It’s where the most brilliant thinkers, most inspiring teachers, and most daring artists reside, rousing us to stake our own claim on history.
The library remains a transcendent example of democracy at work. Open to all, the only entrance fee is curiosity. Like the marble lions, Patience and Fortitude, that stand before the Beaux-Arts building in midtown Manhattan that houses the main branch of the New York Public Library, libraries capture our imagination while liberating our aspirations. It’s imperative for us all who benefit from this wellspring of history and knowledge to defend it as an indispensable public resource, our diary of the human race.
“The health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture, and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries,” Carl Sagan writes in Cosmos, a book I just borrowed from my local library.
Antonino D’Ambrosio is the founder/director of the media and production nonprofit La Lutta NMC (www.lalutta.org), the author of “A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears,” and director/writer/producer of the upcoming feature film “Let Fury Have the Hour” (www.letfuryhavethehour.com).