Can the Public Library (and Democracy) Survive?

On the third floor of the temporary library in downtown Minneapolis—a retrofitted office building that once housed the Federal Reserve Bank—a skinny man with a shock of white hair paced hurriedly up and down the aisles carrying a bouquet of roses wrapped in a wad of shredded newspaper. He looked disheveled, a little like Sam Shepard on a bad day or, maybe, Hume Cronyn on a good day. Though I hadn’t set foot inside the main library for years, I recognized the man immediately as one of the usual cast of unusual characters that inhabit the downtown branch.

What the man was doing with the roses was a source of speculation, as was his reason for walking back and forth, over and over, past the same aisles of books. And then, finally, he darted right and disappeared. The man, it turned out, had been waiting for an open seat along the floor’s west wall, where large windows overlook Cancer Survivors Park, with its pathways and small grove of birch trees. Along the wall, apparently cherished among library regulars, there is a row of tables and chairs where mostly men sit and read newspapers or books about collecting baseball cards or negotiating real estate contracts. Everyone with their passions and projects and secret missions. Two mustachioed friends, maybe brothers, spoke Spanish over a vocabulary book. At another station, a would-be professor with white paint splattered on his jeans worked feverishly on a series of handwritten documents, a dense manifesto. Beside a stack of yellow legal pads, there were a packet of Kleenex, a driver’s license, and a Social Security card aligned perfectly with the edge of the table. A few places down, the man with the roses sat erect and gazed outside, flowers in hand. He watched as working men lowered windows from the roof of the new Cesar Pelli-designed main library across the park, just a block away. He leaned in slightly for a sniff.

As I looked down the line, at the faces gazing out the window or nosing through books, it struck me that none of these people would have been sitting here, would never have enjoyed such a pleasant view, when the temporary library was still the Federal Reserve Bank. The opportunity to gaze down at birch trees, to watch myriad passersby, would have been reserved for managers and executives. Higher-ups. Bureaucrats. But at the library, things are more democratic.

In fact, the library is the ultimate democratic institution. A person, with or without a library card, can hang around all day long, assuming her beverage has a lid on it, without buying anything or being subjected to a single ad. There are no greeters at the door to acknowledge and assess incoming patrons. On the contrary, library staffers understand that this is your place as much as it is theirs, and you may go about your business fully ignored, which ought to be every person’s right. Unless, of course, you need assistance in finding a book about kite-building, or the ownership tentacles of General Electric. Then, you will have at your disposal a dozen experts, better versed than Google in locating what you need from an enormous store of books, magazines, newspapers, DVDs, videos, CDs, pictures, government documents, pamphlets, websites, and even microfiche. If you don’t remember microfiche, it’s the silent film of information technology, crooked photographs of documents that existed before electronic databases and must be viewed through a special, old-timey machine. There is no keyword search in a microfiche document, no clicking down. Just a reel that sends the pages scrolling by at various speeds.

Libraries are the face of government as it existed before we started hating government and, therefore, ourselves. It is munificent in the way public agencies simply aren’t anymore. A librarian isn’t going to arrest you. Nor is she or he going to tell you, thumb driving back like an umpire’s, two years and you’re off welfare! There is no punitive or moralistic aspect to the library, only trust and goodwill. The library says, Here, please take any of our millions of volumes for free. We trust you to make good use of them. We trust you to bring them back. All you need is an ID and maybe a phone bill and you’re in.

These are places for people who want to know; libraries nationwide have seen a steady increase in patronage since at least 1990. They hold a special and sentimental place in the minds of the citizenry and are widely regarded as institutions where browsing and borrowing lead to meaningful knowledge. According to a 2003 study from the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, ninety-four percent of Americans rate their local public library as “very valuable” or “valuable.” The majority even said they’d pay more taxes to support libraries—an average of forty-nine dollars more per year. Currently, taxpayers spend around twenty-five dollars per person, the approximate cost of one new, hardcover book.

Despite that kind of passionate support, libraries everywhere are falling on hard times. The American Library Association (co-founded back in 1876 by Melville Dewey, namesake of the venerable Dewey decimal system) reports budget cuts of up to fifty percent in at least forty-one states. That means reduced staff and operating hours, and fewer new books on the shelves. In John Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas, California, the city’s three libraries will soon close their doors altogether. Minnesota, long a state that prioritized education and literacy, has hardly taken an enlightened view. Across the state, libraries are paring back essential services, thanks to reductions in state funds to cities and counties.

In 2003, Governor Tim Pawlenty dramatically reduced local government aid in response to a projected state budget deficit. This, rather than violate a no-new-taxes promise he made during his gubernatorial campaign. Those cuts directly impacted libraries, in some cases brutally. When local governments are forced to cut services, libraries seem like an easy target; people get a lot more exercised about police and firefighters and schools. It’s a pattern in nearly all fifty states, and throughout Minnesota. St. Paul, to secure future funding, created a library board and a dedicated city property tax. Ramsey County closed its North St. Paul branch and, in 2003, saw a forty percent reduction in its book budget. Hennepin County, until recently, kept six of its libraries closed on Fridays.

Minneapolis was hit especially hard. Because the city’s library board operates independently of the City Council, its budget is less flexible than, say, that of the Public Works Department. Up until the cuts, more than forty percent of the library system’s $20 million budget came from local government aid. Now, some branches are open only three days a week. Money for new books was reduced dramatically: from $2.6 million in 2000 to $1.9 million in 2004. Minneapolis must now rely more heavily on less predictable private funding sources, along with the determined efforts of Friends of the Library organizations.

“I think libraries are very invisible,” said Minneapolis Library Director Kit Hadley. “I think they have been taken for granted. There have been people who support libraries, but it’s nobody’s big cause.” Yet, she continued, sounding more ardent than your stereotypical librarian, “Libraries are fundamental institutions in a democracy. We talk about the value and importance of libraries in promoting the information necessary to active self-governance, the notion that this kind of availability and discourse is necessary for democracy to be alive. And all of us on the staff feel very strongly about that.”

It’s easy to be discouraged by the notion that nobody seems to read anymore. There is a distinctly anti-intellectual atmosphere circulating in a country that has a tradition of skepticism toward high-minded ideas. These days, more than ever, being American means making decisions with our guts, not our heads. It has culminated in a president who brags about not reading newspapers and is referred to in international circles as the “Texas twit.” In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts produced a study that showed a dramatic decline in the reading of literature, with fewer than half of American adults bothering to pick up a novel. NEA Chairman Dana Gioia, sounding a little like Kit Hadley, said, “This report documents a national crisis. Reading develops a capacity for focused attention and imaginative growth that enriches both private and public life. As more Americans lose this capability, our nation becomes less informed, active, and independent minded.”

No doubt there is a relationship between the decline in reading and the increase in societal fear and jingoism. As a person learns more about the rest of the world, enlightenment and tolerance tend to follow. Higher levels of education mitigate prejudice and increase the support for civil liberties. “These are not qualities that a free, innovative, or productive society can afford to lose,” said Gioia.

Pages: 1 2 3