A few weeks ago, an article was written by Christie Nieman and published in an Australian newspaper with the headline, “Libraries are about democracy, not just books.”1 I first dismissed the article as another feel-good squishy love note for library fans to read about how great libraries are. I likened it to the opinion article published in the New York Times a few weeks earlier, “To Restore Civil Society, Start With the Library” by Eric Klinenberg which discussed the necessary social infrastructure that public places like libraries and parks bring to a community.2 While I completely agree with and support Klinenberg’s point (and intend to read his new book), my frustration with articles of this sort is that they tend to stay within the bubble of people who do not need to be convinced of the value of public libraries.
This article was emailed to me by no more than seven different people, and shared widely on social media, but I can’t help but feel we’re preaching to the proverbial choir. What was different about Nieman’s article is that she specifically called out how unhelpful it is when people tout the feel-good wistfulness of libraries of old: “If we allow ourselves to indulge in nostalgic middle-class ideas of quiet places and well-stuffed bookshelves, then we have failed to understand them too. In fact, we have endangered them.”3
Nieman argues that portraying libraries in this golden-hued light inadvertently labels them as a non-essential service. When deciding how to spend a shrinking municipal budget, a quiet haven for books palls in comparison to a new police car. Additionally, this representation of libraries of the past is simply not accurate. While books have been a mainstay of libraries since their inception, public libraries have always been institutions where those of lesser means can come and access resources and information. By not specifically highlighting how the work of public libraries impacts disadvantaged populations we’re simultaneously selling ourselves short, reinforcing the idea that libraries are for some and not all, and slowly but surely digging our own grave. Our advocacy must start getting real about who is using our libraries and for what reasons. A public building is intended for public use, and not just the version of the public that people feel comfortable being around. Our facilities, services, programming and materials should be able to be used by even the most marginalized in our societies. Otherwise we’re not doing our job and assisting in its demise.
The Pennsylvania Library Association recognized the need to assist libraries with reframing their advocacy to highlight the essential services that they provide. The PA Forward program leverages public-private partnerships to bring programming to libraries that address five literacies that are necessary to succeed in the 21st century. These literacies include Basic, Financial, Information, Civic & Social, and Health. When libraries demonstrate that their services, programs, and materials fit one of these literacies, their impact and value are demonstrated more clearly. By talking about story time as basic literacy instruction we elevate the work being done to its rightful position. The skills associated with these literacies are necessary for success in today’s world and we provide that support- for free! So, while it may be uncomfortable, I believe it is our duty to crawl into the dark corners of our communities, shine a light on their needs, and adjust our services to serve them. When we tell those stories, its harder to ignore our value. By doing this we’re remembering our whole community, and not just those that wax philosophical about the dusty shelves of their small-town library. There is value in that perspective, but it’s not the whole story.
1. The Age, “Libraries are About Democracy, Not Just Books,” by Christie Nieman, published 10/8/18. https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/libraries-are-about-democracy-not-just-books-20181009-p508k7.html. Accessed 10/19/18
2. The New York Times, “To Restore Civil Society, Start with the Library,” by Eric Klinenberg, published 9/8/18. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/08/opinion/sunday/civil-society-library.html. Accessed 10/19/18
3. Nieman, ibid.
Tags: basic literacy, civic & social literacy, essential library services, financial literacy, five literacies to succeed in 21st century, health literacy, information literacy, Library Advocacy, PA Forward