Can the Public Library (and Democracy) Survive?

Notions like assimilating immigrants, protecting access to information, and working to inform the public in myriad ways—have come to seem radical in an era of government secrecy. Just after the September 11 attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft directed federal agencies to intentionally stall in releasing public documents requested under the longstanding federal Freedom of Information Act until “full and deliberate” consideration could be given to possible impacts. That was a reversal of the policy set by his predecessor, Janet Reno, which placed the burden on agencies to show why they had withheld particular documents. Then, the next month, President George W. Bush signed an executive order restricting access to historical presidential papers, likely to protect the reputations of his father and the so-called Bush Dynasty.

In fact, libraries have themselves become radical entities. The American Library Association recently filed a brief with the District of Columbia Circuit Court attempting to learn the makeup of the controversial and clandestine National Energy Policy Development Group that Vice President Dick Cheney convened in 2001. It sided against the USA Patriot Act, which greatly expanded the government’s ability to collect personal information, including a library patron’s activities. As soon as an unofficial draft of the bill was available, the ALA called on a group of experts to pick it over. They objected to increased access to library records, new computer-monitoring strategies, and an expanded definition of the word “terrorist.” The ALA organized a phone campaign and worked with U.S. Senator Russ Feingold to introduce privacy-protection amendments to the bill. In the end, the amendments failed. So, these days, many libraries go to great lengths, with signs and homepage notations, to alert patrons to new privacy infringements.

Locally, the Minneapolis library board fought efforts to impose filtering technologies on library computers, despite the fact that, on occasion, patrons and librarians wound up exposed to pornography. (In 2003, the city paid a $435,000 settlement to twelve librarians who, in anomalous fashion, claimed a “hostile workplace.”) In defending unfettered access to data, the board has argued that filtering technologies are imperfect, often barring non-pornographic sites while allowing triple-X pornography to slip though. In the end, Minneapolis installed filtering programs because of a Bush administration requirement aimed at shielding the eyes of children. If a library wants federal funding, the law says, it must employ filters. (Truly brave adult patrons can still request filterless browsing.) Hadley told the press, “This borders on feeling like extortion.”

No doubt, radical librarians don’t exactly endear the library system to the current administration—or to some of the public, for that matter—but that’s what makes their efforts so important. “In general, it has been libraries, among other institutions, that have defended access to all kinds of information, including unpopular information,” said Hadley. “Some of those issues have now taken center stage, because of the Children’s Internet Protection Act and the Patriot Act. Some are tough issues and some aren’t. I think that our board feels very strongly about the importance of intellectual freedom in terms of democracy in action.”

Minneapolis’ central library is the premier public library in Minnesota. The crown jewel of the city’s network, it stands guard over more than two million books, compared to St. Paul’s one million. And at a time when many libraries are bowing to popular tastes and going the Blockbuster route—spending money on endless copies of books like Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix—Minneapolis puts a priority on titles that are culturally important but less often borrowed. The city owns more than one million unique titles, more by far than any other in the state, except for a few university libraries (which most of us don’t have access to). So, when Duluth calls looking for The History of the World by Sir. Walter Raleigh, Minneapolis obligingly sends it out. In this way, the downtown library acts as repository for the entire state, maintaining a distinguished permanent collection so other libraries don’t have to.

It makes sense, then, that Minneapolis’ main library should be widely cherished, that it should be the loveliest and most generously funded in Minnesota. Indeed, the new building going up on Hennepin Avenue has raised eyebrows because, to some, the expenditure feels extravagant, what with recent budget tightening and, especially, reduced operating hours at many library branches. The central library itself typically operates just seven hours per day and is closed on Sundays; considering Minneapolis’ across-the-board financial troubles, there is no telling how often the new building will be open. A frugal person might wonder: Why not just leave the main branch in the Federal Reserve Bank, or retrofit some other existing structure, maybe in the warehouse district? After all, St. Paul makes do with a building that’s almost a century old. (The city just spent $15.9 million to renovate it.)

The answer to that query is this: In 2000, the citizens of Minneapolis voted to build a new library. Now well under way, the structure is largely funded by a $140 million city referendum that passed by a two-to-one margin. Times were still flush back then, and the state was footing a significant portion of the system’s operating budget. So generous, educated, liberal Minneapolis specified that the referendum money could only be spent on a showpiece central library, and to improve various community branches, such as the north side’s newly renovated Sumner Library. If people want to gripe about poor decision-making, they should point the finger at the geniuses who moved the main library out of its original location on Tenth and Hennepin, a castle-like structure that strongly resembled the Lumber Exchange Building. They plunked it down in a 1960s-era box that was difficult to expand or update and constructed in such a way as to hold together for only forty years.

Anyway, Minneapolis, for better or worse, has always chased the future more ardently than St. Paul. It’s no shock that when policy makers noticed state-of-the-art architectural wonders going up in cities all over the country—including the exotic Rem Koolhaas-designed library in Seattle—they wished to express their own dedication to literacy combined with high-tech ingenuity. It was a matter of civic pride. If all goes well, the library will be heavily used and a magnet for increased private donations, rather than becoming a beautiful memorial to a dead and bygone era. An exquisite corpse, like the Mill City Museum.

The new library, which is scheduled to open in the spring of 2006, aspires to be inspiring. It will act as a multifaceted community hub with an auditorium, meeting rooms, learning materials in twenty different languages, wireless Internet access, and almost two hundred new computers with—and this is important—room for hundreds more. There will be public art, a café, and the city’s first municipal “green roof,” planted with flowers and prairie grass. The purpose is to reduce storm-water runoff and, because rain gets filtered through the various plants, pollution levels.

At 365,000 square feet, the library will be spacious enough to give fingertip access to more than fifty percent of its titles, compared with fifteen percent at the old main library, making pneumatic tubes, endearing as they were, obsolete. The assumption, or at least the hope, is that there will be enough money—likely from private sources—to purchase an impressive “opening day collection,” which, according to fund-raising materials, would make Minneapolis’ the fourth-largest central public library collection in the United States.

Inside, the design includes “elemental” materials such as light maple paneling and homey touches like fireplaces and lounge furniture. Daylight will be a chief source of illumination, thanks to high-tech, floor-to-ceiling windows, some of which are etched with pixilated images of trees or snow. As long as the man with the roses doesn’t plunk down in front of one of those, he should be quite taken with the views of downtown. And, with luck, he will realize one of the true assets of a structure such as this, both from the inside and the outside: beauty. The library will be useful, but it will also reflect a community investment in the creative and the intangible. It will be a monument to ideas. Cities are not made only of concrete and girders, after all; they are also built of imagination.

In 2003, at a meeting where the Minneapolis library board was discussing how to absorb an expected $4.5 million cut in state aid, a woman named Margaret Howes posed a simple question of Kit Hadley. How much, she wondered, would each person in Minneapolis have to pay in order to make up for the deficit? Hadley whipped out her calculator and came up with a figure of twelve dollars. Twelve measly dollars. Less than a typical month’s fees at the video store. Less than the cost of a babysitter. Less than regular Internet access. Certainly, less than the price of not having books widely available.

Throughout history, people have risked everything to publish and protect books. They’ve slaved to rebuild libraries destroyed by those who would stifle free thought. And when circumstances dictated, people learned to read in the dark, in fear and secrecy. In Black Boy, Richard Wright’s autobiographical novel, the author describes wanting to read so badly as a seventeen year old that he convinced a white man to allow him to check out books under his name. This was the Jim Crow South and most libraries were off limits to blacks, especially blacks who wanted to read H.L. Mencken. He tells of standing at the counter, pretending to be on an errand for the white man, nervously trying to look as “unbookish” as possible so he wouldn’t be thrown out. When interrogated by a suspicious librarian, he claimed, petrified, “Oh, no, ma’am. I can’t read.”

Yet now, when the admirable mission of libraries is in jeopardy, when one of the few stations of government that is open to all, that helps us to become better people and improves society, needs money; when this basic pillar of democracy is under siege, our state politicians are too concerned with reelection to lend a hand. In applying the cold standard of business-like efficiency to government, they ignore the fact that many important, even essential, things can’t be measured in dollars.

And so these legislators leave libraries, including the Minneapolis library—the very fulcrum of the statewide system, the one on which we locals are already spending $140 million—to go begging. These lofty institutions are forced to kneel down and grovel, asking citizens for twelve dollars each.

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