The World Without Public Libraries
On the whole, I'm not much of a book reader. Most of my reading is done online; I read a handful of books every year, mostly non-fiction, based on various whims. Right now, I'm reading The World Without Us, a captivating exploration about how the world would revert (or not revert) back to a pre-human emergence. Some of these things have been dramatized into a series on the History Channel by a different name, providing the added element of CGI to show how buildings would collapse, infrastructure would fail, nature reclaims the suburbs, and how all that would remain for future archeologists is our stainless steel cookware. For the scientist in me, it's fascinating to see everything humans have made becoming undone by the natural forces of this world.
So, in touching upon the premise of the book, I thought, "What would the world be like without libraries?" How would our demise come?
Unlike the book, which asks the reader to suspend disbelief and accept the total sudden disappearance of humankind, I cannot propose nor fathom asking the same for libraries. In attempting to avoid hyperbole, I think the mechanisms of the library’s demise have already proven themselves present. It will not come through lack of innovation or adoption of technology or practices; our relevance and willingness to change in this digital information age has certainly been established. No, the end will come as it has for some libraries over the past two years: through budget cuts. Funding for all library types (public, academic, school, and special) has hung in the balance for the last couple of years after budgets tighten and communities and companies look to trim their expenditures. You need go no further than typing in the words “library budget” in a Google News search to see the current toll that is being exacted.
One problem, as I see it, is that the library as a community service does not fit nicely into any government spending niche. The library is not an essential service like the police, fire, and ambulance companies nor do we handle the mundane mechanisms that make everyday life possible in terms of sanitation, road maintenance, and other public works. We provide some support for families, unemployment assistance and job hunting help, and educational materials, but we are not of departments of social services, labor, or education, respectively. We wear many hats for our community, covering gaps within different agencies, yet most talks about the library budget are controlled by the things we buy so members of the community can borrow them. There is a dangerous disconnect between the commonly held public perception of what we offer and the myriad of services and benefits beyond the collection that exist.
So, to go back to the original question, what would this truly mean? We should not invoke dire warnings of our demise without considering what would actually happen if libraries were removed in their entirety. I’m not certainly saying that this will happen, but let us imagine if it did. The immediate fallout would be the end of the industry and trade associations that have set up around the library: no more groups like ALA, no more trade publications like Library Journal, and a spectrum of businesses that provide consulting, furniture and building ware, hardware and software technology, and other office supplies would be forced to evolve or cease. Perhaps the most prominent economic impact would be the companies that provide the materials that go into our collections; the books, magazines, newspapers, movies, music, and database providers would find their business slowly evaporating as the library budget shrinks.
In this hypothetical, the length of time before libraries would shut down depends entirely on the community. Whether large or small, it is the amount of local support that would prolong the end. I would imagine there would be some consolidation in libraries between towns; similar to how the library systems would close down branches one by one before finally shuttering their main location. As they say, all politics are local, and the same holds true for library support.
In pondering this and trying to make it manageable, I’ve broken this post into three distinct sections: collections, services, and ideals. I’ve also excluded school, academic, and special libraries from this question. I’m not an insider when it comes to the other library types, so I would invite those with better knowledge to post their own hypothetical.
With that said, let us consider a world without public libraries.
I think that our public patrons will break down into two groups: the people who will end up buying more materials and the people who will look for borrowing alternatives. As for the first group, they will recapture a small part of the library market by buying the materials they would have previously simply borrowed. While operating under a smaller budget than the library, they will be purchasing within a niche of authors, movies, and magazines they are pretty comfortable with. There may be some purchasing around such preferences (such as similar authors, musicians, and genres), but the wider range of opportunities that the library offered will be gone. As to whether the amount an average person would spend over the course of a year would exceed the amount that would be paid taken out of a tax line, the ALA estimates that the average tax burden of an individual is roughly $31 (the cost of a hardcover book, one DVD, seventy local daily newspaper issues, or six months to two years of a popular periodical). It’s not hard to see how this number could be easily surpassed by an individual over the course of a year.
The more interesting development to me would be the innovations to lend/exchange material in the absence of the library. On the local scale, there could be physical exchanges of books, music, and other materials as people pool their resources to expand their own access. Whether it would be small meet-ups of individuals for exchanging or library co-ops (fee based membership run entities), smaller communities would arise to allow lending and access to databases (which would have to consider lower cost individual subscriptions to maintain revenue).
The presence of the internet would certainly ease peer to peer lending of materials. There are already sites that exist right now such as Bookmooch, Swaptree, and Paperbackswap that facilitate people wanting to trade materials. Freecycle and Craig’s List could easily add book swap subheadings to their repertoire to assist people in making connections for exchanges. A subculture of an open information market where books, DVDs, and CDs are the currency is not terribly farfetched in light of what currently exists. Social media such as Facebook and Myspace could also play a hand in spreading the word about the aforementioned websites and tools or act as another trading medium.
In the void left by libraries, this would give rise to new material lending enterprises. Business models and ideas like Netflix could be applied to other types of materials including books, magazines, and music. Likewise, in the model of iTunes, an idea of a low cost per-piece rental system could garner attention. (Whether or not someone could borrow a book for the cost of $1 is another story entirely.) In both cases, it would be a system of pick, click, and have it shipped to your door. With either a subscription or per-item, the private sector would offer alternative material lending solutions for former library users.
In thinking about materials after libraries are gone, the question is not “if” people will still have access to materials, but “how”. Long before the emergence of public libraries, people lend each other reading materials. Whether it was the newspaper, pamphlet, book, or serial, information and literacy moved across society. With the demise of public libraries, it would return to a slower pace of exchange. The new communication mediums would allow for more rapid material exchanges (including illegal ones such as piracy). I don’t doubt that people will get their hands on the same materials, but between the private sector and public communities, it would be interesting to see how it broke down.
While a world without public libraries would lose a gamut of services, none would have a more glaring absence than the loss of free public internet access. This aspect presents the largest access barrier to former patrons. Whether it is maintaining social or professional relationships, searching or applying for employment, making personal intellectual inquiries, or keeping up with interests or hobbies, the disappearance of public computers has great ramifications.
There are a trio of potential solutions to this issue. First, other governmental organizations could provide computer access as part of their public service. While possibly niched, it would allow jobseekers to search and apply for jobs online (Department of Labor), homework help for children and teens (Department of Education), or specific department related inquiries (such as access to sites and databases relating to finances from the Department of Commerce). Otherwise, there is the potential for government run computer centers which allow citizens to access the internet much in the same way that libraries currently operate. The main obstacle to this type of solution would be the additional expenditures required to create and maintain these services (in other words, if they did not have the money to keep libraries, a new expenditure is highly unlikely). Even with this obstacle, I think there is enough importance on computer access (however rationed) that certain governmental agencies would create their own computer centers and labs for their tailored purposes.
The second potential solution would be the private sector. The concept of internet cafes and center is not a new one; people pay for the time that they use to access the internet. The real question is to whether the government would offer computer subsidies (“computer stamps”) to allow lower class individuals to get cheaper access rates or if the influx of new customers would drive competition and lower prices to the point where nearly anyone could afford it. I would imagine it would be a combination of the two; where competition did not push the price down, there could be a mechanism in place to allow the working poor to maintain computer access. (The larger looming question this begs is whether internet access is a fundamental right; for this hypothetical, I am brushing aside such an issue in favor of simply looking for ways to maintain current levels of access.)
The last solution would be the creation and support of a community organization to provide access. Whether it is under a co-op structure or a simple pooling of resources, people could create shared computer access points that meet basic internet access needs. It could be a jointly purchased computer in a person’s house, a room in a community center, or a communal laptop with a mobile access card that goes to where it is needed. The point is that people will find a way if they want to maintain their wired connectivity.
While free public computers is one of the traits that defines the modern library, it is not the only service lost with the closing of public libraries. Research questions, from genealogy to academic inquiry to reader advisory, become inquiries that are answered by either local subject experts or fodder for search engines. The presence and growth of Wikipedia would suggest that people are willing to share their knowledge and create links between information. Without librarians acting as a clearinghouses, the shift of the burden of providing information moves to individuals to step up and share in websites, wikis, and other organized content. I don’t think information is necessarily lost; a person could still track down the information from experts and other knowledgeable sources. What changes is the number of steps and the amount of time it takes for some inquiries to go from question to answer.
The last important service that the library provides is when it acts as a life enrichment center. Each month, libraries across the nation put on programs for children, teens, adults, and seniors. Whether it is story time for babies or Wii for seniors or instruction classes, it would take a concentrated local effort to maintain these programs. I am hard pressed to imagine other governmental entities making replacement offerings save for those whose programs are closest to the department’s purpose. Likewise with the private sector; although I can see larger or more affluent communities being able to hire speakers and performers on a consistent basis. Personally, I feel that all of these social and/or educational activities would need to be picked up by the communities they serve in order to continue on as the closest resemblance to the offerings of the library.
The remainder of services lost in the absence of public libraries consists of offerings that some libraries provide such as a notary, public fax, computer instruction, or a place for kids and teen to go to get off the street. These are the functions that cover the various gaps in overall government operations. It is not that there are no alternatives to these services, it’s just that libraries were the best situated institution for offering them. Again, people would find a way to get what they when public libraries existed; it would just take more local direction and effort.
In essence, who would carry the banner for uninhibited intellectual inquiry, academic freedom, free expression, and unfettered information access? The government? Businesses? Our educational institutions? The people? To this last section, it has given me great pause.
While public libraries are absent, I don’t believe our ideals are equally so. I believe that, with the creation of decentralized information in the absence of libraries, these issues would take greater importance. It is hard for people to rally for our ideals when they remain unchallenged as a whole; the creation of access barriers between the people and the information they seek would create a whole new playing field. With the onus of responsibility shifted from the institution to the people, I believe you will see a greater vocal presence for these freedoms. This is not to say that there would not be cases of censorship or information access inhibition, but I believe there would be more community opposition to infringements (realistically, to paraphrase a saying, your mileage on this ideal will vary with the community in question). To put this another way, with the elimination of additional options, I think people tend to get very particular about what is left on the table.
Without public libraries, the question of the ideals that librarians champion rests in the hands of the community. As much as I’d like to give into my cynical side and say that they would erode within a decade, I feel that the general public also embraces the basics of intellectual freedom. As Americans, we accept the freedom of expression even if we don’t always fully follow it to the letter. This is to say that we are not a perfect people but we do agree on certain basic freedoms. We like our options, we like our ability to speak and express freely, and these aspects become important in the face of a reduction of information options.
I’ve been working on this post off and on for the last couple of weeks. Over that period of time, I’ve read Ned Potter’s “The Unspeakable Truth” and other posts talking about a shrinking or vanishing role in libraries. This has compelled me further to finish this post and to thoughtfully examine a world without public libraries.
Personally, for all our budget troubles, I don’t foresee the end of public libraries in the near future. Libraries may consolidate between towns, close smaller locations or branches with the weakest statistics in larger system, even cut back to much shorter hours and offerings, but the complete demise of this public institution is not a reality. While there are entities that are better at aspects of what we do, there is no complete package or an organization that replaces us as a whole. There is no other establishment, government, private, or otherwise, that does what the library does for the same amount of cost/benefit. This is not to say that there aren’t individual libraries under the knife right now in desperate need of public support. What I am saying is that the institution of public libraries at present remains above extinction. If anyone would like to suggest otherwise, I’d be happy to hear their arguments and evidence.
I also think that there is a tremendous amount of gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands when it comes to the question of relevancy. All of this energy is better utilized doing what the library does best and focusing on the mission at hand: serving their patrons and their community. I don’t care whether this is through larger book selections, better reader advisories, an immersive website, or through providing support for the latest websites, tools, and gadgets. It is about the information, whether it is educational, entertainment, or otherwise.
Finally, I don’t believe the world would stop without public libraries. Society got along relatively fine without us as they would again if public libraries went away. Our demise would add layers of additional complexity to information access, but it does not stop us from eating, breathing, or living. Life, most assuredly, would go on. It should not be our aim as public librarians to try to convince people how bleak and melancholy the world would be without public libraries. Rather, it should be our goal to show how much better the world is when you have seemingly infinite information and entertainment options only a phone call or keystroke away. It is an appeal to what could be, for our holdings are the seeds of insight, of knowledge, and of imagination. That we can enable better dreams, better understandings, and a better fuller life.
The public library is in the life enrichment business. Act accordingly.AndyW