In Praise of Public Libraries

By Lambert Strether of Corrente

Recently, there have been two extremely odd online incidents related to public libraries — odd, ultimately, in a good way — and so I thought I’d amble through the zeitgeist, looking for material on public libraries, and conclude with a few personal reflections.

Online Incident One, from Reddit:

I feel like an idiot. I vastly misunderstood how a library card works for years.

So, I was talking to my wife and the subject came to library cards and how she had one. I mention I didn’t really see the point, if I’m going to pay for a book I’d rather own it, I say. She gives me a strange look but just brushes the remark off.

Later, somebody is talking about libraries on reddit and how they are so great. I said that, while the selection is great, amazon is much better.

“Yeah but you have to pay for them on Amazon”

And thats when some gears started turning.

So I started looking into it. Turns out, for years I’ve always, mistakingly, though that, while the card was free, you had a rental fee to pay whenever you rent the books. I always figured that if I’m going to pay a fee to rent them, I would rather pay a little extra and keep them without worrying about late fees. Saves money, can read at my own place, and has led to a respectable book shelf.

Turns out I was wrong. So so wrong.

I had no idea the books were free. I went to the library the very next day and got a card. Then I find out I can rent the books online and have them delivered to my kindle!

This is a complete game changer and I feel so foolish for not realizing this soon

Let’s not make fun of this poster; he does admit he’s wrong, and given the way everything else works, why wouldn’t libraries work the way he (“mistakingly”) thought they did? He expresses perfectly “The Soul of Man Under Neoliberalism,” which if it isn’t a book yet, should be. The image that follows could be an illustration for that book. Although it’s from Twitter, and about Britain’s NHS, the principle is the same:

“It’s like a different language.” Indeed!

Online Incident Two, from New York Observer columnist Andre Walker on the Twitter:

This too — for reasons I am about to relate — ended happily as well:

110,000 replies; that’s quite a ratio. (And let’s not beat up on this guy, either; he did surrender!)

So how popular are libraries, in real life? Public libraries are used by a lot of people. From the Institute of Museum and Library Services 2015 survey:

Nearly 311 million Americans lived within a public library service area in 2015, an increase from 306 million in 2014. Libraries offered 4.7 million programs in 2015, attended by 106 million people, 4 million more attendees than the previous year. In addition, the number of electronic materials, including audio, video and e-books, continued to grow, increasing by over 50 percent between 2014 and 2015.

(While 106 million visits isn’t Walmart or McDonalds scale, I still think it’s impressive.

Why are libraries so popular? One reason, especially for the bright young things of today (“millennials”), is that they offer public space. Quartz:

According to a new analysis of Pew Research Center data on US library attendance, millennials more than other generations appear to have a use for physical libraries. They may not always come for the books, but the country’s youngest adults show up…. ‘[Pew] found that millennials—arguably the first generation to grow up online—use public libraries more than other, older adults. More than half—53%—of survey respondents ages 18-35 visited a public library or bookmobile within the previous year.

One reason they do is that libraries provide (increasingly rare) public space:

There are a few reasons for the strong millennial attendance record, says librarian Rachel Clarke, an assistant professor at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies in New York. She points out that millennials are old enough to have kids now and parents love public libraries…. Younger adults may also have fewer financial resources and be more likely to live in small or shared spaces they long to escape.

The stodgy old library seems to be turning into a party animal. Beer and book nights or afternoon coffee klatches are common, says Clarke.

The library may not seem like the best place for these sorts of functions, given the existence of bars and cafes, but for a key distinction: money. The library is the rare place where there’s no pressure to pay for anything (except the occasional fine on an overdue book). “Not everyone can go to a book club meeting at Starbucks and pay $5 for a coffee but public libraries are open to everyone and always will be,” Clarke says with justifiable pride.

And it’s not just millennials who increasingly want public space. From that 2015 Pew Research study:

Should bricks-and-mortar libraries have a smaller physical footprint in their communities? A majority do not think so. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of those ages 16 and over say libraries should “definitely” have more comfortable spaces for reading, working and relaxing. This represents a modest increase in this view since 2012, and it suggests that libraries still occupy a prominent spot in people’s minds as a place to go.

“No pressure to pay for anything” translates to an escape from neoliberalism. The question in the graphic above — “At which point is the profit[1] generated?” — simply doesn’t apply.

A second reason that libraries are so popular is that they provide trusted sources of information; “curated,” I suppose we would say, and there are even curators (“librarians”) to talk with. From the Brookings Institute:

In many communities, librarians are also ad hoc social workers and navigators. They help local people figure out the complexities of life, from navigating the health system to helping those with housing needs. This “go-to” role has influenced library programming and events, with libraries providing advice and connections to health, housing, literacy, and other areas.

Other sectors, such as health care, increasingly see public libraries as a critical link to a community.

Of course, if life under neoliberalism weren’t so insanely complexified and crapified[2] (two sides of the same coin), librarians wouldn’t have to perform all these functions; I would rather ObamaCare’s tax on time not exist in the first place, although I’m happy that librarian navigators can help me reduce it. More from Brookings:

Philadelphia’s libraries, as a trusted local institution, have partnered with the University to address population health and social determinants of health. With librarians now trained as “community health specialists,” the libraries offer programs and assistance for people of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds. In 2015, almost 10 percent of the libraries’ 5.8 million in-person visitors accessed specialized programs and assistance in such areas as nutrition, trauma and mental health resources, youth leadership and healthy behaviors. As the researchers conclude, “Libraries and librarians contribute two particular strengths to advance a culture of health: accessibility and trustworthiness.”

A third reason libraries are so popular is pecuniary. Yes Magazine:

[In 2010] the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania undertook a detailed analysis of the economic impact of the public library.

Among other things, it found that within 1/4 mile of one of Philadelphia’s 54 branches, the value of a home rose by $9,630. Overall, Philadelphia’s public libraries added $698 million to home values—which in turn generated an additional $18.5 million in property taxes to the City and School District each year. That benefit alone recouped more than half of the city’s investment.

Ka-ching. But at least, if I am a homeowner, it’s my ka-ching, and not sucked out of my community, either.

I would bet that NC readers, being as they are accustomed to long-form bloggers, are disproportionately library users and enthusiasts, and so can come up with plenty of their own reasons — strengthening democracy, for example — to support public libraries. So here’s my fourth and last reason: Librarians are bad-ass. From The Christian Science Monitor:

despite being supported largely by public funds, the library profession itself has a long history of opposing state power. In 1939, as the world was preparing for total war, the American Library Association (ALA) adopted the Library Bill of Rights, which guarantees everyone’s right to access books and other materials regardless of their “origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.” In 1953, at the height of McCarthyism, the ALA released the Freedom to Read Statement, which condemned the suppression of reading material as a “denial of the fundamental premise of democracy.” And in 1967, amid growing urban unrest and opposition to US involvement in Vietnam, the ALA founded its Office of Intellectual Freedom, which aims to safeguard the First Amendment rights of all library users.

Anf of course after 9/11:

Following the 9/11 terror attacks, Congress passed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act, which gave US domestic intelligence agencies broad powers to obtain information about members of the public, including library records, with warrants or subpoenas from a secret court. A provision called Section 215, which expired in 2015, imposed a “gag order” prohibiting librarians from disclosing such requests.

The ALA opposed the provision. To circumvent the gag rule, [Jessamyn] West created and distributed “warrant canaries,” signs to be posted in prominent places that read “The FBI has not been here (watch very closely for the removal of this sign)” – the reasoning being that, while Section 215 imposed rules against disclosing the existence of secret subpoenas, it said nothing about disclosing their nonexistence.

Love it.

Oh, and as one might expect, the Trump administration’s budget plans to cut library funding. From First Monday:

For example, the budget defunds and closes multiple federal agencies that support direct public information access through libraries, such as the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). It also cancels funding programs that support specific library initiatives, such as the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) and Innovative Approaches to Literacy (IAL) program. These funds are central to the ability of libraries to provide free public Internet access and information literacy training, and as these institutions are the only public agencies that consistently provide such opportunities nationwide, these cuts would greatly undermine the social safety net that exists for people with no personal means for accessing information online

Obviously, this is very stupid and bad. You might consider calling your Congress Critters and telling them so, or (better) writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper on the topic. People will notice!

* * *

I said I’d close with some personal reflections, and I thought I’d just list the ways the public libraries have helped me:

1) For most of my time in grade school through Junior High, I read several books a week, making my way from the children’s section, to the yung adult section, and to the adult section before I was through. So I owe much of my intellectual formation to public libraries.

2) A library gave me my first job, shelving books after school (hence my life-long love of classification systems, in this case the Dewey Decimal system). I got my Social Security number then, too!

3) As an adult, and a poor working person, I did a lot of reading and research in the Boston Public Library, and later the New York Public Library. Wonderful public spaces, then solely concerned with books, and with electronic card catalogs a noxious innovation!

4) When I was out of work for a couple years in the Bush depression — disconnected phone, etc. — the Free Library of Philadelphia gave me a free Internet connection, without which I would not have been able to blog, and probably would not be here.

So I am very grateful to public libraries. More institutions should work like the universal concrete material benefit this is a libary, not fewer.


[1] Handy article on library privatization in Santa Clarita, CA explains that “The bulk of the lower costs, both for the city and LSSI, comes from cutting the benefits previously afforded to librarians. Santa Clarita’s library staff has been removed from the state’s pension plan.”

[2] Describing the librarian’s role as “go’-to” is highly appropriate, since in programming, the “go-to” statement is said to lead to “spaghetti code,” a twisted and tangled mass of Kafka-esque structurelessness. Like our health care system, like our criminal justice system, like our retirement system, like most every system we encounter under neoliberalism.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Science Officer Smirnoff

    Not to mention research university libraries!

    To take one—Berkeley subscribes to tens of thousands of periodicals. If someone is lucky enough to live near a research university, there are wonders. Also not to mention the music libraries (for instance at UCSD) with a large collection of recordings.

    A fairly well-known gouge is the payment certain technical publishers extract from taxpayers (in the case of public schools), especially for, biomedical periodicals. A counterattack has been in the making for years, and years more will be needed. (Add to the complaint against Big Pharma gouging!)

    1. kukuzel

      But are they open to the broad public, i.e. to people not affiliated with the university in some way? I’ve looked for ways to use the Santa Clara University library next door but did not find one. Is Berkeley different?

      1. dk

        Back in the 1980’s I got access to the UCSD research libraries by registering (not enrolling) at the college. I was working for a company (developing medical telemetry devices, my first tech job) and convinced them to fund it. This gave me full access to libraries and other campus facilities and activities. I never enrolled in classes, although I did audit several.

        The cost was $40/semester at the time, now it looks like it’s in the $250-$400 range: $247.10 for “All Other Visiting Student (ex: US college/university student, high school, UCSD alumni)” $376 “Student Services Fee”?
        but a visit to one or more campus offices would probably clear it up.

        Worst case, you’d have to finagle some kind of declaration that you are doing commercial research: one approach might be to incorporate a small business LLC and write your own research project (typically another $100-$200 but there is a lot more you can do with it).

        So, not cheap but if you’re doing research to develop skills, it’s a lot more affordable than actual tuition.

        I spent the time in the technologies library, reading up on the history of the development of solid-state/integrated circuits. I had discovered that one of the best ways to learn in a technical field is to read how it was developed, why do they use this constant and that convention. Also, one gets to observe engineers and researchers arguing the fine points of the basics, introducing concepts to each other as simply as possible and cutting to essentials (it appears that engineers and researchers generally regard each other as idiots, a mutual judgement amply borne out in these correspondences). After a year of self-study I was beating out 4 and 5 year graduates for engineering jobs, without any debt to pay off.

    2. Anand Shah

      Agree :-)

      For Example: You can join U C Irvine Library as a Friend… and access books / journals / multimedia and take some of them home too for something close to $80 / year + parking costs… (You cannot access the eBooks, reserved for faculty/students VPN access and in LAN areas only)

      The best part is you can reserve a book from a remote UC Library, and it is delivered to your local UC Library…

      i can understand, when neighbouring cities collaborate and share books, but the power of the whole UC Library System, is definitely world class…

    3. Science Officer Smirnoff

      I got a year’s borrowing privilege from UCSD libraries (that starts with the famous Geisel library as well as the biomedical library) in the late ’90s for ~$60 and that was for a slug of books at a time. Oh, and for music library headphones. Furthermore, if a request wasn’t shortly* available in the UC library system the San Diego interlibrary loan program provided (I got something from a private school, USD).

      *I recall from student days my adviser was able to keep a book off a library shelf—indefinitely—and on his own desk. Faculty’s exalted status. . .

  2. Wukchumni

    We had a mobile library in L.A. when I was growing up, it was like the ice cream truck or the Helms bakery truck, in terms of comfort food for the mind. My mom told me our family was the best customer, ha!

    Books were my trailhead to places real, or just imagined. The library was the go between supplying me with the wherewithal within it’s walls.

    1. Enquiring Mind

      LA County has a big multi-branch system so you get the network benefit of many collections and a delivery hold system to request books to check out at your ‘home’ library. That leverage of resources has been very helpful for my growing reading list of recommended books from NC commenters! A long list is a high-class problem ;)

  3. Arizona Slim

    Anybody like to garden? Well, I have good news from Tucson. Our Pima County Library has a Seed Library. You can check out seeds, grow food, enjoy it, then return some of your seeds after you’re through for the season.

      1. Arizona Slim

        I am using my phone, so l will do my best with the link. Go to and so a search for the Seed Library.

        Hope this helps!

    1. ArcadiaMommy

      Wow! Did not know this – is it affiliated with Native Seeds? I grew up in Tucson and did not know the library provided this resource. We always had a garden growing up, and my Native American grandmother was very picky about what plants would work (she was always right!). Living up in PHX, our closest library is always bustling. I think children’s activities, internet access and printing/copy services are heavily used. Plus sadly it seems like some people go to the library to get out of the heat.

  4. Crprod

    My wife’s final position before retirement was supervising the holdings management group at the main campus library at a major research university. Technical services are a little noticed but necessary part of any library.

  5. rusti

    I would bet that NC readers, being as they are accustomed to long-form bloggers, are disproportionately library users and enthusiasts, and so can come up with plenty of their own reasons

    Guilty as charged. In my decent-sized Scandinavian city, there are 27 public libraries with an effective system for passing books around among them on order. There are books available in about 50 languages, and the English offering is really impressive. I’ve borrowed and read a number of books suggested by the NC Commentariat such as Listen, Liberal, Debt: The First 5000 Years, or Ha-Joon Chang’s books.

    It’s also a great public space to meet during the long, dark and wet winters here and have a coffee or play chess. And the librarians are especially helpful to immigrants trying to make an effort to learn the local language.

  6. skylark

    Growing up, the library was always a happy, magical place for me. Working with local librarians, every child at my school gets to sign up for a public library card and the kindergarteners go on a field trip to explore the town library. They also have access to our own fabulous school library. I love how librarians, like nurses, are fierce defenders and protectors of human rights. Bad-ass as Lambert says.

    1. Carla

      When I was in elementary school, the school library was ample and sufficient for all of my needs. Although I have a terrible time remembering names, I recall the name of our school librarian: Miss Meyers… I can see her now. Since I read a book a day then, I haunted the stacks and she knew me well.

      Like Lambert, my first job was as a page at the main branch of our public library. The pay was 65 cents an hour — minus income tax and social security– and I loved that job, which consisted of checking out books and shelving returns. But I will confess that after a year or so, the siren call of a (slightly) higher wage lured me away to the local mall (one of the first in the country) where after school and on weekends I was a sales clerk in a children’s clothing store.

  7. ambrit

    If there is not a librarians’ union, there should be. I see the need for said union every time I see and talk to the few library workers I know locally. Part time staffing is creeping into the local library system. So is credentialism. Both threaten the librarys’ staffs’ ability to continue on in the field. Unless one is independently wealthy, why do anything if it will not provide the basics?
    The other aspect of library social engagement is the librarys’ inherent status as information gatekeeper. One way the Fundamentalists fight their culture war in states such as Texas is by taking control of the State ciriculum board. Control over the information available to the public necessarily controls the publics’ thinking, and thus decisions.
    Finally, if the local police can reap the whirlwind through getting used military equipment cheap, or free, why not libraries too? I feel sure that the military upgrades their electronic hardware on a regular basis. Why not ‘donate’ some of this no longer used but still useful equipment to library systems nationwide? Bigger, better, faster internets and file servers for all!

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      And –though I fear it’s too late — many Corporations in the Defense Industries cut back their support for their internal libraries which once helped put Man-on-the-Moon back in the day. I’m not sure what happened to many of the fine technical books from that era. I suspect all too many were simply dumped in the Corporate dumpster. In my opinion — many of the technical books from the 1960s were better written, more accurate, and even given our advances since then — more comprehensive than the present extremely expensive technical books “available” now.

      1. ambrit

        Right about all sorts of ‘technical’ books from the Golden Age. When we homeschooled our children we used old State of New York textbooks in mathematics, which were the best we ever encountered for comprehensibility. Most of the time, when someone tries to reinvent the wheel, we end up with a barely usable polyhedral object.

  8. barefoot charley

    My wife is the new president of our local Friends of the Library group, where she’s long been a volunteer. It’s harvest time in Humboldt, and our library is filled practically to the rafters with ‘trimmigrants’ from all over the world, hoping to find cannabis-trimming jobs or, failing that, a good book and/or a place to charge their phones or use free wi-fi. Some homeless come get warm. Oldsters enjoy a place to go. Libraries are a much appreciated social service, with the service blessedly undefined. They’re still a box containing freedom.

  9. Altandmain

    I suspect that the neoliberals desperately want to privatize public goods like libraries specifically because they are fully aware of how popular they are. It is not too different than universal healthcare versus the nightmare that is the American healthcare industry.

    The libraries provide opportunities for students, thosr who might not be able to otherwise afford to read, Internet access, and a number of other services.

    Here is a ssd example of what happens when right wing economics meets reality:

    That is terribly sad, but keep in mind too that is going to be the end result of the neoliberal order.

    Sadly in a world where everything is reduced to business ROI, this is hard for people to understand. Either that or they choose not to understand. Actually even with this flawed metric, I would bet that the libraries have a number outstanding return on investment to society.

    1. Mel

      So many poisoned apples in neoliberalism.

      within 1/4 mile of one of Philadelphia’s 54 branches, the value of a home rose by $9,630

      Watch for the argument that the library is sitting on a valuable lot that can be redeveloped for increased tax revenue.

      1. Enquiring Mind

        Perhaps SAT scores or some other metrics could be used to show the benefit to homeowners for those nearby libraries? A type of book-learnin’ gradient to influence the Philistines.

  10. annenigma

    Our county library system in Montana just took the unusual step of renaming and branding our county libraries with the registered name ‘ImagineIF Libraries’ along with a logo, new public-private partnerships, and lots of hoopla. We’re now referred to as customers rather than patrons (or taxpayers). Cards and borrowing are still free – for now.

    “Exploration and discovery” [aka info-tainment] is the new name of the game. They spent beaucoup bucks to hire an out-of-state public relations firm to put it all together, then spent more of our taxpayer dollars to convert everything to the new name, including replacing labels on all the books, new cards, etc.

    I suspect they’re creating a prettied up and popularized package, and after spending our money on new infrastructure which is also in the works, they’ll begin privatizing by outsourcing management. Then come the FEE$. I hope I’m wrong about that future but hey, Capitalism.

    Here’s a description of the new deal, all professionally written:

    We are Explorers

    This library is not a warehouse
    for books and periodicals
    or films and music.


    We are wall-to-wall rich
    with ideas, representing raw,
    unconstrained human possibility.


    A haven for wide-eyed children,
    hungry entrepreneurs, backpack-laden travelers, online
    adventurers, and quiet corner
    escape artists.


    Where the quest for ideas,
    dreams, and self-fulfillment is
    supported every single day.


    We are driven by a desire for life-altering
    experiences. And the opportunity to help people
    feel free and pioneering in the search and
    expression of their individuality.

    We believe in bending the rules. We trust our guts,
    follow our hearts, and do our best to push the
    bravest ideas forward

      1. witters

        Creative Innovation! Future Studies! Networking! Embrace Change! Pioneer! Express Your Individuality! Feel Free!

        We are driven by a desire for life-altering
        experiences. And the opportunity to help people
        feel free and pioneering in the search and
        expression of their individuality.

        We believe in bending the rules. We trust our guts, follow our hearts, and do our best to push the bravest ideas forward.”

        Like the Nobel Prize for Economics.

    1. ambrit

      Hiring a PR firm is the tell. Anything I have ever encountered that required public relations ended up with a price tag attached.
      I would call the “Mission Statement” plain old boilerplate, but that would be an insult to hard working Madison Avenue copywriters everywhere.

    2. ex-PFC Chuck

      Start organizing push-back now. You and your fellow citizens are not library customers; you are library users. Push back against the “Imaagine IF” crap also.


      1. Barbara Currier

        You are library patrons. It is your tax money running the show. Do not let the private moneyed interests take over. Public libraries should remain free and open.

        How will the public be better served by starving librarians and other library staff and making sure they die under a bridge when they are old or sick? We never have made a bundle. Teachers make more. I know. I’ve been both.

        When the Feds were trying to be able to grab everyone’s records, we stopped keeping records of what people read at our library. You can’t turn over what you don’t have, and we put it in our policies to back that up. Makes it legally acceptable. Patrons can choose to turn the feature on in their online accounts (no info prior to that activation) that will keep track of their checkouts, but we do not have access to those records once the items are returned, aside from the last four patrons who had a particular item, in case we have to track down who still has the dvd in their player. Do you think for-profit companies would do that for you? We’ve got your back, Jack.

        I’m a Young Adult Librarian in a public library.

  11. makedoanmend

    One of the loveliest libraries I’ve ever had the benefit of attending on a regular basis is the library on 42nd and 5th in NYC. The reading room is simply magnificent, and quiet. Thinking about the miles of books underneath was mind boggling. A gem.

    Whatever the type of library, to me a library is both sanctuary and a never ending wonderland of exploration. It is also a wonder of modern economic culture – democracy in action simply by its very existence.

  12. voteforno6

    Some of my happiest memories from childhood involve trips to one of the local public libraries. It had been a while since I had visited one, until I visited the local branch earlier this year. Fortunately, I live in a very wealthy county, so the resources available to patrons are fantastic. I see all sorts of people there, too – it’s right next to a homeless shelter, making it readily available to residents of that facility. It’s very handy as a public meeting space, and it gets used, too. I’m pretty sure I saw some kids there on my last visit playing Dungeons & Dragons, or some similar game.

  13. Jeremy Grimm

    I often stopped by the public library on my way home from school and spent hours browsing the shelves and often checked out books on such a range of topics I wonder that I ever settled on a major in college. The Internet is a great resource — but nothing replaces holding a book. Dare I say I even treasure the peculiar musty smell of an old book?

  14. grayslady

    I just returned from using the library to make some photocopies–you can use a card or still use cash. Love it! Our library is an expensive line item on my real estate taxes, but it is fabulous. I can borrow books. magazines or movies to watch from home, the DVDs available for borrowing are incredibly extensive (and there is a budget for DVDs, so if they don’t have what you want you can request that they purchase it), there are at least 10-12 computers available for library card holders, I can view any Consumer Reports issue from my home computer, and I can use for free if I’m physically at the library, or I can pop in anytime the library is open to have a document notarized. There are all sorts of speakers who come in during the year and music concerts during the summer. The building itself is incredibly comfortable, fully carpeted, with choices of big, comfy chairs, study carels, or sound-proofed rooms. There’s always plenty of parking and the building has large, plate glass windows that look out over fields and woods. It may cost a lot in taxes, but, in my opinion, it is worth every penny.

  15. Vatch

    Just a little reminder for people who fail to find a book that they want at their local public library. You can request that your library borrow the book from another library via inter-library loan. Just ask one of the librarians about this. The size and quality of the loan networks varies, but many libraries have access to a surprisingly large number of books.

  16. maria gostrey

    on my sons 3rd birthday i asked him what he wanted to do & he said, “go to the library!”

    1 of my happiest memories of being a parent.

  17. vegeholic

    I am a great lover of public libraries and libraries of all kinds. But the trend is not my friend. I was recently on the library committee for a term of 2 years at a major public university. During that period the word “book” was not mentioned at all. The agenda for every meeting was concerned with a very narrow set of topics: how to promote “information literacy” (whatever that is), the prohibitively high cost of access to online academic journals (which naturally eviscerates the book buying budget), how to compete with major journal publishers for ownership of copyrights, or the conversion of traditional library space to “active learning” space. Clearly I am hopelessly behind the times but I just see incontestably valuable resources being exchanged for resources of much more dubious merit.

  18. KFritz

    Anecdotal, sample of 1 observations.

    Libraries are, with a few exceptions, the remaining institution lending DVDs. Here in a CA Central Valley town of 50,000, the only other sources are grocery store vending machines. Since the library stopped self-checkout of DVDs and hired a security guard, the collection has expanded and improved. Librarians say that a great deal of their hands-on work is processing DVD lending.

    The childrens’ room here is large and conveniently located. Based on my observations, this library is important for nannies, au pairs, and parents of children under 8. This was also true for after school hours in Oakland CA

    To come back the security guard, libraries everywhere are now resting/cooling/warming stations for the indigent and homeless–and especially here,where the library is within an opera singer’s shouting voice from the central park where most of the homeless congregate (though the police have stepped up their rousting), the Social Security Office, and the local soup kitchen operating 6 days a week at lunchtime. The place has become quieter and more pleasant since the imposition of a security guard. One of the guards informed me that when offered a choice of obeying the rules or being banned, a percentage of the homeless/indigent refused to obey the rules–and said so. This is probably a sign of mental imbalance, but the recalcitrant people were outwardly compos mentis enough to understand the choice.

    A 20+ year veteran librarian told me that since 2008, she’s noticed a deterioration of civility across the board from all patrons, regardless of their various classifications.

  19. flora

    Great post. Thanks.
    1. opening twitter graphic “who gets the money?” is perfect.
    2. Poor isolated Andre Walker. He needs to get out more.
    3. Do NOT mess with librarians. (Seriously, do not mess with librarians. What… you thought only armed guys were protecting our Constitutional rights?)

  20. Jeff W

    I’ve long said that librarians—along with nurses—are the unsung heroes of our age.

    One of the over-looked advantages of a library is that you get to read a book and then return it and you don’t have it any more. Most of the clutter in my place has comprised of books—many of which I like, some of which I don’t, most of which I will not read again. Getting books from—and returning them to—the library helps you declutter and simplify your life. And you don’t have to move them when you move.

    Don’t get me wrong—I love books and I’ve bought books I’ve already read just to own them and have them to refer to or reread. But I’d rather do that with those few books that I cherish than with the many I just happen to want to read.

    1. Carla

      +100 to your whole comment!

      I still buy WAY too many books for my own good — and though there are worse vices, you are my new model. Thank you!

  21. Ned

    Don’t forget, many public libraries allow card holders to link to various research sites like EBSCO, read Consumer’s Reports online, watch free movies through Kanopy, museum passes etc. Check the reference desk, you’ll be amazed at what’s available and that few people take advantage of. It’s not just books, but free meeting rooms etc.

    Much of what you pay for is available at your local public library which you do pay for in your taxes.

  22. jgordon

    I studied library and informations sciences in graduate school, but later dropped out when I encountered some information in one graduate level library text saying that library funding was always a first to be slashed whenever governments encountered economic problems. While public libraries are a boon for our declining culture and civilization, don’t expect them to be around much longer. I would encourage everyone to set up private libraries and stockpile information in durable hardcopy formats. We’ll need those when our descendants go about restoring some form of civilization.

  23. Michael

    Visiting friends in Seattle, we first explored their downtown library that offers a “walking trail” from the top floor around the inside perimeter of the building that slopes down floor by floor until you magically arrive in the main lobby. Very cool. Next time I’ll walk up and burn a few calories.

  24. Ook

    After 25 years outside North America, I visited and found the main public library in Vancouver BC was part of some political struggle, one of the results being that it had taken on the role of daytime homeless shelter, including bathing in the washrooms, and even now, a few years later, I remember the stench around the periodicals. Quite a change from the 1970s, when I would visit small, poorly-funded libraries that nevertheless managed to maintain strictly their functions as areas of public study.
    The result is less pressure on city politicians to address the problem of homelessness, combined with the destruction of the library experience.

    1. JBird

      The housing crisis in the Bay Area has been ongoing and steadily worsening since at least the 80s. Housing costs have been increasing since the late 1960s probably. All the mentally ill were dumped from the institutions since then, the homeless are always increasing, the quality of life has been bifurcated into the comfortable and the desperate. I don’t like how libraries are getting rougher and it’s no fun to sit next to Mr. Budweiser, or listen to my better half’s stories of dealing with difficult fellow patrons; people have to go somewhere, and it is not the librarians nor the patrons fault that the federal, state, and municipal governments all refuse to do anything about the various crises. American, and I assume Canadian, libraries are only going to get rougher until then. Meanwhile I’ll just be great full.

  25. JBird

    “No one uses libraries anymore.” Really? Poor soul. I hope those eleven thousand responses weren’t all mean! :-)

    They have been a refuge for me my entire life, and can not remember them not being full of people of all kinds. The staff’s job has certainly gotten harder as I have noticed that the crowd has gotten rougher in maybe the past 25 year.

    My better half would go to the San Francisco Main Library and she mentioned the no bathing signs in the restrooms to which I said “really, how interesting.” On another visit she saw people using the sinks to bath and also to do laundry. To the new observation, I responded “Oh, really? How Interesting.” What does one say to that? I don’t think she had ever seen anything like that before and I really don’t recall anything like that.

    Oh well. Another day in Paradise.

    But yes, DVDs, CDs, books, magazines, access to research journals, inter-library loans, internet, printing, copying. Comfortable reading/study areas. Heck, in some places you can bring in a (closed) cup of coffee. And the mini parks/green areas around some libraries. Often a great place to read and eat.

    No matter my situation, the library has been a Godsend.

    1. MichaelSF

      When I worked at SF Civic Center in the 1980s I’d often wander over to the main library (now the Asian Art Museum) and spend my lunch back in the stacks browsing old periodicals and books (a “that looks old, let’s see what it is” kind of thing).

      I’ve only been in the new main library a couple of times, but what struck me is that I didn’t see many books. Maybe they are hiding somewhere. Internet, CDs and other modern media may be nice, but a library ought to be a place where you are surrounded by books.

      It does seem that the librarians there now need to add social worker to their duties.

  26. JBird

    When they moved the library, they got rid of much of the catalog citing a lack of space. It was quite a scandal that the expensive “improved” (insert eye roll) main library had less storage space. I’m pretty sure some of it was put in storage like other libraries and museums do. However, much of the catalog went right into the garbage.

    I’m trying to get some out of print books both because I’m a bibliophile, and for some likely research for later papers. I could accept merely borrowing them as I already have too many books in a small apartment. And it’s likely to be up to two years before I could use them. I know that most(all?) of these books would have been in some of the local libraries. But cost savings. Budget cuts. So the lucky books get sold and many get landfilled. Not everything is on the internet, and sometimes it still easier to pull out a book on a subject. Especially if I might be doing some studying on esoteric items like (possibly) Assyrian finance or Chinese coinage and neoliberal economics or European military history. But we can’t be spending money on unnecessary dusty old books.

    Bah humbug!

    Rant off.

    To be fair, I think many librarians were panicking that the internet would destroy them so they tried too hard to reinvent themselves. One could argue libraries are supposed to give access to knowledge and entertainment and not limit doing that to books.

    I must say that the the Asian Art Museum is a great museum. Still want those books, but I really enjoyed visiting.

  27. Mark Alexander

    Thank you very much for this post!

    “No pressure to pay for anything” is a big deal at our local library. We don’t charge fines, but do have a “conscience box” on the front desk. I suspect we get more donations that way than if we actually charged fines.

    As with Lambert, my first job was at a library — I was a “page”, which meant mostly shelving books and doing occasional work with the card catalog. Now that I’m “retired” (ha!) I am once again working at a library, shelving books as before, but also doing miscellaneous things like minor carpentry work, moving our ILS (integrated library system) from proprietary software to open source software (Koha), and so forth.

    Lots of books still fly in and out the doors, but the circulation numbers have been in a slow decline recently. I am not quite sure why this is so — my knee-jerk response is to blame Facebook and smartphones, but that’s probably not the whole story.

    On the other hand, the library is certainly not dying by any means; in this town it functions as a kind of cultural center. We have free wifi and computers for the many people in this rural area who do not have computers or internet service. We host classes, discussion groups, and lectures. And yes, we loan DVDs, too. There is no other place in town that offers all of these kinds of things.

  28. SpringTexan

    British neoliberals have been incredibly effective at gutting public libraries: “Since 2010, hundreds of local libraries have been handed over from councils to be run by the local community. One estimate is that 500 of the UK’s 3,850 libraries are now being run by local volunteers. Despite talk about empowerment and community involvement, the reality is that local people face a stark choice: take over a local library or it faces closure….Until very recently, every local public library was part of a joined-up national network. In even the smallest library, people could be sure to find certain basics such as books and PCs, plus trained staff able to provide a gateway to national assets, including standard online reference works, national newspaper archives, a link to the British Library, access to the summer reading challenge for children in the summer holidays, and much, much more in terms of books, educational resources, reference material and contacts. The whole point was to provide a standard service nationwide. But that has now gone. It is now pot luck whether your local library is a full service, or instead, some nice people with cast-off books donated by other nice people.”

  29. SpringTexan

    More on British library cuts, not quite so recent:

    Destroying public libraries is also big for the Kochs, to the extent of financing campaigns against library bond elections:

    1. JBird

      Going from town to town to try to destroy their libraries? That’s not conservative or libertarian, that’s anti-public.

    2. scoff

      Andrew Carnegie endowed public libraries across the U.S., using the virtually all of his $350 million fortune to do so. Unlike the Kochs, he recognized the value of “book learning” goes beyond just the person doing the learning. It benefits our entire society.

      This quote from the article would be incomprehensible to the Kochs:

      “The man who dies rich dies in disgrace.”
      – Andrew Carnegie

  30. Martin Finnucane

    My kids and I have a routine: when not out of town or otherwise busy, on Saturday late morning we go to the library (about 1 mile away), hit the kids’ section for my 8 year old and 3 year old, then to the recent arrivals shelf, then to the adult non-fiction stacks for a history or biography for me, and something on animals or gardening for the 8 year old. One of the best experiences of the week. (Only problem: the library is open a total of 4 hours on the weekend.)

    Particularly gratifying for me personally: I used to haunt the very same library as a kid. I’m one of those people that shot out of his crummy small town swearing to never return, but fell hard and landed right back where he started. I failed to achieve escape velocity (Charles Portis.) But, it’s ok. The library reminds me that it’s ok.

  31. JEHR

    I love the library: it is a most wonderful place to be. When we had a conservative leader of our country, I knew he was up to no good when he ceased supporting scientific libraries and let some of the contents of the library be transferred to the dump! It’s not a bad way to judge character and the burning of books portends even worse.

    1. Wukchumni

      I burned a book once…

      Was walking the High Sierra Trail in the early 90’s by myself, a 71 mile backpack trip that goes west to east across the Sierra from Crescent Meadow in the Giant Forest-to Whitney Portal, and I left too early-around June 10th in a drought year, and ran into snow & ice and really cold conditions, and made the mistake of bringing along Jack London for a ride, and damn near everybody in his tales is cold or in the process of freezing, especially in “To Build A Fire” that it seemed to subtract another 5 degrees from however frigid temps it was already.

      On top of everything else, I wasn’t as confident with carrying a lot on my back, and every chance to loosen my load was taken, including getting a roaring fire started thanks to the tinder supplied by Jack.

      1. JEHR

        Well, there are always exceptions. I know that story, “To Build A Fire,” and London would applaud you!

  32. FiddlerHill

    In high school I began stopping at the one, very nice old public library in the small Pennsylvania town where I grew up. My family home was poor, small, crowded with siblings and intellectually dead. But there, in the library stacks or at a study table, was another kind of life — clean, quiet, refined. I was also very shy but often managed to share a smile and “Hi” as I passed a pretty girl in the stacks. Thrilling. It was almost intimate. As those last years of school passed, I lingered later and later at the library, sometimes missing dinner. But as i walked home in the dark, I had gained a vision of a different and better life — one that I was fortunate enough to find as an adult.

  33. meeps

    Even the tiny library in the public elementary school I attended was a huge inspiration to me. One of our librarians created “kid kits”; elaborately decorated banker boxes filled with books and A/V materials organized by subject. There was an archaeology kit, an Egyptology kit, another introduced Astronomy and the known universe. My best friend and I skipped many an outside recess to delve into the indoor treasure troves buried in our school library.

    When I became a young mother I didn’t have the means to buy many books for my son, so the neighborhood libraries were a critical resource for us. He made lists of all the books he’d read over the summer. Although he’s now a busy young adult, he still makes time in his schedule to read old-fashioned, paper-bound books.

    My sister divorced when her kids were small and I took my nieces to the public library every chance we had. I’ll never forget their excitement when they’d discover just the right book to expand their already budding interests in one subject or another. Having a resource to focus their minds on their own need was, I think, a welcome reprieve from other challenges they were facing.

    I don’t think the value of a library can be measured in coin.

  34. D

    Sadly, it’s getting so I’m afraid to visit Silicon Valley libraries, one of which I stopped visiting because it seemed they weren’t interested in buying books that were critical of Silicon Valley culture, and its apparent head librarian loved the human brain is a computer meme; the next Library I got a card at, which I really enjoyed (in a wealthier area, no doubt from Tech Money, where it was decided the residents were mature enough to read books critical of Silicon Valley), having taken a language class in one of its study rooms, started charging $50 for non residents and also hideously bought about 5 checkout bots during the Governor Brown Library crunch; and recently, in June, Zuckerfiend infested 90 of the California Libraries with Oculus Rift. It’s horrid enough he had San Francisco General Teaching Hospital renamed after him, as I’m sure it’s overloaded now with the poverty and desperation which Facebook, et al, have brought to the Bay Area.

    Of course, Governor Brown’s appointed State Librarian, Greg Lucas, has no Library background whatsoever, utterly ignoring California Code (laws are only for the little people to follow), so it’s no surprise that Zuckerfiend is now infesting the Libraries. From that Lucas link:

    the California State Education Code clearly states:

    19302. The division shall be in charge of a chief who shall be a technically trained librarian and shall be known as the “State Librarian.”

    In his confirmation hearing with the Senate Rules Committee, Lucas stated that he had just begun, this month, taking a class (yes, that’s “a class” singular) from San Jose State University’s controversially newly renamed School of Information. A few weeks of one class does not a librarian make. Can you imagine a state attorney or physician being appointed with as little training? “Well, I’ve taken ‘Intro to Human Biology’ for a few weeks so I think I’m good to go leading up the State’s efforts on healthcare reform.” Never. That would never, ever happen.

    Then there’s this horrid shite:

    Unleashing the Impact of Libraries.
    Buy. Learn. Collaborate. With Califa.

    Califa is a nonprofit library membership consortium representing 220 libraries in California.

    That huge fonted word “Buy” is not a typo.

    Very sorry for the bummer, it’s so fricking sad, the STATE of things.

    1. JBird

      I almost went to the San Jose State University library of science degree program. It’s not that hard a degree to earn, but a single 3 unit class? It’s been sometime since I checked; there were at least 30 units required specifically on that field.

      Just how did the man get nominated and approved, especially as there are no shortage of
      Bachelors, Masters, and even PhDs library/information degree holders?

  35. D

    Lastly, topping the Oculus Rift Library infestation is the mysterious VARLIBRARIES which has partnered with the above noted Califa (trigger warning on the images at the VARLIBRARIES link, if you’re not up to it, don’t look, it’s near as horrid as zuck’s Puerto Rico VR):

    We want to facilitate building a community of V.A.R. enthusiasts to bring immersive learning into libraries. Here are some links of where to share experiences, ask questions, and spark discussion on implementing this transformative technology.

    VARLIBRARIES Google Community

    Content is the King and Queen of Virtual Reality. We’ve assembled a curated list of growing titles focused on learning and communication. These publishers see the value in having their award winning content experienced in public libraries.

    Both Oculus and VIVE have supplied a list of titles for libraries to start showing VR.


    Oddly, there are no names of the involved VIP[s] and staff on that site. The LinkedIn page for the founder, John MacLeod, notes:

    Executive Director
    June 2016 – 2017 (1 year)
    Started the Virtual Augmented Libraries initiative to install VAR systems in libraries throughout the United Tsates [sic, apparently if you’re a zuck crony, you needn’t worry about the spelling on your LinkedIn Resume – D].

    More on the whole rot here, siiiiigh.

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