At Boston College, friends will become enemies when debating which library is better: Bapst or O’Neill? Outside of BC, libraries are at the heart of another debate, one about the social contract and the role of government in our lives.
In an op-ed for the New York Times, Monica Potts recounted the ugly argument that erupted when the town of Clinton, Arkansas proposed raising the local librarian’s salary. Clinton, a natural gas producer, has been struggling financially since 2009 when gas prices dropped sharply. Many of the 2,500 residents were outraged that the beleaguered town would even propose a spending increase. “We the people are not here to pay your excessive salaries through taxation or in any other way,” wrote one resident on Facebook.
As Potts’s piece demonstrates, libraries are becoming a battleground upon which Americans argue about the role of the individual in the community. Online, conservative pundits make headlines by questioning the efficiency of libraries. In June 2018, economist Panos Mourdoukoutas wrote an op-ed in Forbes arguing that libraries have become obsolete. In their place, he suggested, Amazon should offer cheap access to e-books and databases. Traditional paper books would no longer be necessary, and people looking for a place to surf the web could simply go to Starbucks.
Mourdoukoutas was immediately met with scorn for his take. People reminded him that Millennials use public libraries more than any age group, hardly evidence that libraries are irrelevant. More importantly, poor people and people of color are more likely to find libraries essential to their communities. Turning libraries into private entities would disproportionately hurt these marginalized groups. After this outcry, Forbes eventually deleted the op-ed.
In an increasingly privatized society, the quiet importance of libraries should be more clear than ever. As Nathan Robinson writes in Current Affairs, libraries are, “spaces of absolute equality, where anyone can come, regardless of financial resources, to study, learn, and hang out,” something that is, “increasingly rare,” in this country.
The very idea of libraries, Robinson writes, is actually very radical in 2019. If somebody suggested a government-run building where food or clothes would be given out to free for everybody, she would be called crazy. Libraries are not much different, though. They have been around for centuries, so we have become accustomed to them and the positive role they play in our lives.
What would we do without our own libraries? At BC, we can check out nearly 3 million volumes, access databases, and watch hundreds of DVDs or stream movies. Tutors at the Connors Family Learning Center offer free help with any class. If we need guidance on research, any one of the professional librarians can help us find the right text. Therapy dogs make routine visits to get us through difficult exams. Student art covers the walls, and collaborative study spaces give us room to learn in groups. Finally, all of our greatest questions can be posted on the Answer Wall, which kindly offers advice on topics ranging from relationships to Fantasy Football.
These same benefits, and more, can be found in public libraries across the country. Libraries can host speakers, serve as meeting spaces, or introduce a kid to his first favorite book. All of this is free at the point of use, funded by taxes.
In Clinton, Arkansas, it is hard to find people that would find exceptional value in all of this. As Potts noted, “The library fight was, itself, a fight over… what my neighbors were willing to do for one another, what they were willing to sacrifice to foster a sense of community here.” In some parts of the country, few people are willing to make these sacrifices.
As income inequality grows, however, libraries and similar institutions will become essential to people who lack upward mobility. The American Library Association notes that libraries can play an important role in the fight against inequality, as they “may help improve the dialog across inequality and provide important economic opportunities for the community.” As long as communities continue to fund libraries, they will continue to be a refuge for all people to gather, create, and learn together.