Monday Musings — 12FEB24

Let’s talk libraries. What are libraries beside book warehouses. They are community hubs that have programs for kids and adults alike, They are used for research, information and quiet studying.

Gen Z seems to love public libraries. A November report from the American Library Association (ALA) drawing from ethnographic research and a 2022 survey found that gen Z and millennials are using public libraries, both in person and digitally, at higher rates than older generations.

More than half of the survey’s 2,075 respondents had visited a physical library within the past 12 months. Not all of them were bookworms: according to the report, 43% of gen Z and millennials don’t identify as readers – but about half of those non-readers still visited their local library in the past year. Black gen Zers and millennials visit libraries at particularly high rates.

To glimpse what he means, one need only dip into Frederick Wiseman’s epic and inspirational three-hour-and-seventeen-minute documentary Ex Libris, a picaresque tour of the grandest people’s palace of all: the New York Public Library system, a collection of ninety-two branches with seventeen million annual patrons (and millions more online). Wiseman trains his lens on the quotidian (people lining up to get into the main branch or poring over books), the obscure (a voice actor recording a book for the blind), and the singular (Khalil Muhammad discussing the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), and without saying so explicitly (the film is unnarrated), he shows the NYPL to be an exemplar of what a library is and what it can do. Here we see librarians helping students with math homework, hosting job fairs, running literacy and citizenship classes, teaching braille, and sponsoring lectures. We see people using computers, Wi-Fi hotspots, and, of course, books. They are white, black, brown, Asian, young, homeless, not-so-young, deaf, hearing, blind; they are everyone, which is the point. If you want to understand why the Trump administration eliminated federal funding for libraries in its 2018, 2019, and 2020 proposed budgets, it’s on display in this film: public libraries dismantle the walls between us.This is by design. A statement issued by the Public Library Association in 1982 called “The Public Library: Democracy’s Resource” said:
The public library is unique among our American institutions. Only the public library provides an open and nonjudgmental environment in which individuals and their interests are brought together with the universe of ideas and information…. The uses made of the ideas and information are as varied as the individuals who seek them. Public libraries freely offer access to their collections and services to all members of the community without regard to race, citizenship, age, education level, economic status, or any other qualification or condition.
Free access to ideas and information, a prerequisite to the existence of a responsible citizenship, is as fundamental to America as are the principles of freedom, equality and individual rights.

And they have become a place where homeless people can find shelter during the day, and help via in house social workers.

On a bitterly cold Friday this February, the final day of the 2023 event, vendors in the exposition hall upstairs were busy hawking everything from book-moving services to exotic animal visits. Former Toronto mayor David Miller sat alone at the University of Toronto Press booth, surrounded by copies of his latest hardcover, while a buzzy line formed down the aisle for signed copies of a picture book about a giant beet. Downstairs, in the corporately neutral confines of meeting room 202D, a full house had gathered to talk about one of the burning issues at the heart of the modern public library.

Rahma Hashi, a social worker with a bright smile and a beige head scarf, began the session. Over the past decade or so, in response to the waves of vulnerable people arriving at their doors, many North American libraries have begun hiring in-house social workers. Hashi was one of Toronto Public Library’s first. Part of her role, she explained, was to make partnerships with shelters, with the idea that the library should always be a welcoming place for everyone but the real work of providing service to people who are homeless should be handled by the professionals.

They are the last bastion against the rising tide of book banners. People (on both sides of the aisle) who think that they have the right to ban books for having something in them that they disagree with.

Books predominantly get removed from school libraries, with only a small percentage of book bans impacting classrooms specifically. Most books are removed pending investigation, meaning that a book is removed whenever there’s a challenge for review.

Many of these books are removed from student access before due process of any kind is carried out, according to PEN America. In some cases, books can also be removed without challenges for review. These books often end up being unavailable for weeks or months.

And of course capitalism is making it all got to shit anyways.

In the long term … I don’t know. The biggest obstacle I see is neither patrons nor libraries, but publishers. Libraries ultimately have service goals, and some libraries already have a secondary platform (even if OverDrive is the dominant one by far). But corporate publishers have only profit goals, and I imagine OverDrive’s lure of a giant stream of marketing data would continue to be compelling, even if their monopoly was successfully broken.

Alternative platforms already exist: one promising place to start might be the Palace Project and the associated Palace Marketplace, which right now mostly seems to let libraries buy ebooks and audiobooks from indie authors, and access out-of-copyright classics. The company behind it, Lyrasis, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit; that doesn’t mean it’s immune to mismanagement, but it’s a better legal framework than a for-profit B corp. And its board is teeming with actual career librarians, instead of one token librarian and a handful of investors and executives, like OverDrive. The Palace app is designed to combine content from multiple vendors, including OverDrive, which could help with transition. But the Palace Project so far has relationships with less than 5% of US libraries.7

I don’t have a neat solution to the fact that OverDrive has a functional monopoly in the space, or that it’s now owned by vampires. All I know to do is point at the dead canary and yell as loud as I can.

I asked my reporter friend how I might go about getting a real journalist to write about it, and she regretfully advised me that she didn’t think it was a big enough story yet to get any professional interest. Once public libraries have actually been devastated by private equity, it’ll be a story.

It will also be too late.

I’ll leave you with this:

Please support you local library. And actually use it once in a while.

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