My post entitled "Enjoy your 'Tax Freeze': Part 1 - A Country Without Libraries" elicited a couple of comments from two local tax freeze advocates (they won't mind me characterizing them that way, I'm sure). Their point seemed to be; "Get into the 21st century - - we have the internet and Kindles now!" I was reminded by both commentors that Ben Franklin would have really dug the Kindle - - after all, he was an inventor.
They miss the point.
To define a library by the technology that delivers words and information is erroneous -- as erroneous as stating (rather elliptically) "Libraries in schools are already being reduced by digital media. That's the demand."
Libraries (and, more dangerously, LIBRARIANS) in schools are NOT being reduced by digital media. They are being reduced by school boards and school budgets that are defining libraries as little more than "warehouses of bound matter." Schools that have cut librarians in favor of part-time "media specialists" suffer the consequences; I see my own children having to turn to me to learn basic research.
From a 1998 American Prospect article called “Will Libraries Survive?” by linguist Geoffrey Nunberg
In 1998, a Commerce Department study followed that 62 million people are using the Internet, and other estimates put the figure still higher. Most of these… are people who already use the public library less often than their parents did for purposes of obtaining recreational and instructive reading. Now they no longer need to rely on the library even for the sorts of information they can't easily get on National Public Radio or at Barnes & Noble… they may still want to have a library around as an information source of last resort, but they have a number of more convenient options to exhaust before they are driven to use it.
So, in 2011, the library should be dead or dying. But that's not what's happening, for instance, in Chicago. From the book Better Together: Restoring the American Community:
In little more than a decade, Chicago has built 32 neighborhood branch libraries and renovated nine others. the downtown Harold Washington Library Center, opened in 1991, is one of the largest public library buildings in the world. Its green metal roof with huge gargoyle like owls, their wings extravagantly unfurled, make it in unmistakable landmark. 14 more new branches are scheduled to open by 2005. More to the point, the libraries are humming with activity.
In other words, proper attention to public library facilities will make those facilities integral to the community—more than worth the investment made. In an hours-old news clip, you see Illinois continue that commitment:
Sixteen Illinois public libraries will receive construction grants to help pay for essential upgrades planned for this summer.
The grants will go toward projects such as handicapped accessibility, heating, ventilating and air conditioning units, building additions and renovation. Secretary of State and State Librarian Jesse White says many public libraries lack the funds to perform these improvements without grant money.
And why? These urban and suburban libraries provide huge quality-of-life benefits. Irregardless of whether information is delivered via bound matter or iPad, or Kindle, or microfiche, or computer monitor, etc.
So - a commentor says "literature, research, and study are all evolving."
Innovative libraries aren't content serving as one-way conduits of information; they want to foster dialogue and exchange with their users. What does that have to do with whether words appear on paper of an illuminated screen?
As further expressed in the book Better Together: A library is no longer a passive repository of books and information or an outpost of culture, quiet, and a calm in a noisy world. The library of today is—should be—an active and responsive part of the community and an agent of change. In addition, the Internet, which was supposed to wipe out its reason for existence, is very often cited as one of the things that brings people to the library.
This may come as a surprise to some of our more sheltered subdivision dwellers, but there is a “digital divide” in this country. Believe it or not, there are people who live within blocks of you who do not have access to the Internet, a computer, and certainly not a Kindle. For them, the library provides a window into a world of information we take for granted in our suburban enclaves. And now that the digital divide extends into our suburban enclaves, library access is more important than ever for people seeking employment, information, networking tools, etc.
There are also people who are new to the world of computers and the Internet. Late bloomers. For them, the Franklin public library provides very inexpensive computer classes. At five dollars per class, they are eminently affordable; at the same time, their immense popularity has created a not insignificant chunk of income for the library, which helps perpetuate these services.
Here in Franklin, our library stands as the only non-retail “third place” in existence. That is, the library is the only place you can go with no barrier to entry; a place where you may meet or happen upon virtually anyone.
What is a “third place”? Ray Oldenburg describes it as a place that is neither work nor home, a place where people can spend time together. The café, the public, the neighborhood tavern, the old-fashioned drugstore with soda fountain are some of the examples he uses. A good third place makes few demands on the people who gather there, beyond requiring them to observe some basic local rules (for instance, that individuals, and especially newcomers, will not dominate the conversation; or that Illinois natives will assert their Bears fandom in moderation while in Wisconsin borders). A third place is a neutral ground where people from different walks of life in the community can meet and get to know one another, having in common perhaps only their desire to frequent this particular place. (More about "third places" here.)
Think of some examples of "third places" in Franklin. It's a very, very short list.
The replacement of local shops by chain stores and implementation of single-use zoning that puts housing, workplaces, and retail establishments in segregated areas have effectively eliminated the “corner drugstores” and the coffee shops where people met one another and found out what was going on in town and in the neighborhood. Television keeps us at home in the evening, when in the past we would've sought one another's company in a third place. The authors of the blog comments which I am addressing here have first-hand knowledge of the political and ideological polarization that is threatening us locally. I attribute a great deal of the blame for the lack of community in suburbs like Franklin to the simple fact that our built environment has made it impossible for those serendipitous chance encounters between persons who have ideological differences that lead to constructive debate and collegial jousting. Instead, we are treated to “bloggers” and anonymous commenters who insult one another's ideas—and assault one another personally—in away they never would if they had actual, real-world interaction with persons outside of their ideological spectrum.
Look at the crowds at Starbucks and other cafés. They attest to the continuing need that people feel for third places. However, those third places have a barrier to entry; that being the fact that you are ostensibly there to purchase three-dollar coffee and maybe a muffin. If you bring a backpack full of notebooks and pencils to Starbucks and simply loiter, you are not living up to your side of the bargain. The demographic is narrowed thusly.
Yes, Benjamin Franklin would have loved the Kindle. But he would be horrified to learn that citizens of his beloved republic are, in the dawning of the 21st century, cocooning themselves in rec rooms and pulling up their McMansion drawbridges against interaction with other people and other ideas. He would be sickened to hear that we are now celebrating "tax freezes" at the expense of those social institutions that have helped us grow as a country over previous generations; the institutions built by our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents to serve us and that were paid for by their taxes, though they knew they would see no personal, immediate benefit.
Can you even imagine that forward-looking ethic today?
Our tax rate is at its lowest in four generations, and yet we whine about contributing to educate our children, plow our roads, keep our infrastructure together, and provide community amenities. Where we used to invest in future generations, we now look to secure our own purses, tomorrow be damned.
Still, one cannot deny that Ben Franklin would have loved the Kindle...