No One Is Reading, and Our Libraries Are Closing

Creative Commons photo by Zachary Korb

A couple weeks ago, a very quiet takeover of Downtown Minneapolis was staged. Thousands of librarians from around the nation — purse-lipped and padded-soled — convened for their annual convention. (Were it not for the laminated PLA badges that hung on yarn around their necks, they would have looked like any non-Target-employed resident of the city — that is, poorly but warmly dressed, and vaguely literary.)

During their three-day conference, they would discuss new database software, innovative shelving systems, and learn how to market their respective branches. "It used to be that a library was a library and that was that. People would just show up," said Sylvia Schulman, a librarian from Connecticut. "Now you have to advertise."

So it goes. The AP announced last August the results of a poll that showed 27% of their respondents hadn’t read a single book in the previous year. A 2004 poll conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts found that 43% of Americans hadn’t read a book in the twelve months prior to the survey. You can read Ursula K Le Guin’s somewhat optimistic analysis of these data here.

So wouldn’t one expect libraries to be ailing a bit, too? Apparently they’re not. Over dinner at The News Room, Helen Crosson, director of the Cold Spring Harbor Library in Long Island, boasted of one thousand new cardholders in her district over the last year. One of her dining partners, a librarian from Queens, spoke of how they were continually trying to build more libraries; currently they have sixty facilities to accommodate over two million people, which just isn’t enough. "We’re a minority-heavy area," she said, "and libraries act as a real hub for those communities. They’re a place where you can get on the internet for free, and you have unlimited access to pretty much any book you need if you’re trying to learn English." (She sipped from her drink, put it down and said, "Everyone in this restaurant is so white." Which was <sigh> true.)

When quoted the statistics from the NEA and AP surveys, Ms. Schulman from Connecticut shook her head and said, "I don’t know. You’d be surprised" — and then conceded that she worked in an affluent zone with many residents predisposed to reading.

I guess the question is, why are the Minneapolis libraries ailing so? Here we have testimonies from employees of both upper-middle-class/suburban and lower-middle-class/inner-city libraries that say their facilities are doing fine, if not thriving. Meanwhile, according to this article published on MPR’s website in 2007, the Minneapolis Public Library had "cut one third of its staff, sharply reduced library hours, and closed three neighborhood branches." (Since then, with the merger of the Minneapolis Public Library and Hennepin County Library, those three branches have re-opened…but still.) Are we just not advertising enough? Are we too white? (Minneapolis as a whole, I would argue, is not quite inner-city in the way of Queens, not quite white-collar in the way of New Haven. I’m reminded of Barack Obama feeling wrongly accused of being not white enough and not black enough. No wonder he got two-thirds of our caucus delegates. This is a long, unnecessary parenthetical.)

Even with the opening of the new Minneapolis Central Library on Nicollet Mall last year, things are a bit lackluster — I’ve heard more about its architecture than its community benefits. Taking a quick glance at hours of operation is a little disheartening too. At first, it seems normal not to have the Walker or the MCL open on Sundays. But if you think about the foot traffic in Uptown and Downtown on the weekends, it seems Sundays should be one of the higher-traffic days of the week. On two of the five days it’s open, the Walker Library, on the corner of Hennepin and Lagoon, one of the busiest intersections in the city, doesn’t open until noon. To say nothing of Osseo’s library, which is open a grand total of eighteen hours a week.

If there were a decrease in demand it would be one thing, but according to this Star Tribune report our check-out rates are more than 2.5 times the national average. So either those librarians I talked to were lying through their teeth (and pursed lips, yes, haha, it was funny the first time, too), or really there’s just not enough money to support what has been one of society’s strongest infrastructures since fires, and then campfires, were invented.

Finally, here is one of the lamest photo tours of the skyway ever to have been compiled.