Public Libraries Continue to Thrive Despite Defunding and Privatization Attacks

Yves here. Some cheery news. The same way some institutions are too big to fail, others are too important to kill. Libraries still have strong popular support despite big money attacks on them.

By April M. Short, an editor, journalist, and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California’s weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon, and many others. Produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute

The public sector in the U.S. has been shrinking rapidly since the 1990s as a deluge of privatization has, to various degrees, overtaken many so-called public services and institutions. Public education, for example, has been increasingly privatized by way of racist school voucher programs, and the expansion of for-profit charter schools and for-profit education management organizations (EMOs). Private organizations own and operate the nation’s homeless shelters and food banks, and oversee many welfare programs including Head Start programs and child welfare assistance. Medicare and Medicaid systems include government payouts to private managed care organizations (MCOs), process reimbursement claims through private intermediaries, and commonly delegate medical care to private care facilities, private doctors, and private hospitals. Not to mention the nightmare that is America’s private, for-profit prison system.

Public libraries may be the last truly public institution. Linda Stack-Nelson’s essay “The Last Free Space,” published in 2018 by World Literature Today, is a “love letter to public libraries” that details the reasons these uniquely public entities are essential. In it, she salutes the fact that public libraries offer much more than free books, noting the classes, workshops, internet access, resume and tax help, community gathering events, and so forth that libraries provide. However, she argues, this “plethora of resources and opportunities for community” that libraries provide is not the sole reason they are important.

“Libraries are the last place in every town and city that people can simply exist,” Stack-Nelson writes. “Every building one enters today comes with some expectation of spending money.”

She continues:

“In a library, no one is asked to pay anything simply to sit. For those with few resources besides time, this is a godsend. Libraries are unofficial playgrounds for low-income families on rainy days, homeless shelters in cold months, reprieves from broken homes for grade-school-age children. They are the last bastions of quiet and calm where nothing is asked of one but to exist. Many arguments have been made about how the library is an outdated institution offering outdated services—that in the 21st century, how-to books on building sheds and daily newspaper copies are obsolete and the funding used for libraries ought to be reallocated to other programs. I can only assume that those who make such arguments are people who have always been comfortable with the expenditures it takes to move through the world, whose presence has never been questioned. For those people, libraries can be about books. But not everyone has the luxury of seeing past the space.”

The very existence of public libraries, from this perspective, can be seen as an emblem for the people. American Library Association (ALA) President Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada said in November 2022, in an interview with Independent Media Institute, that the public library has been an “enduring symbol of democracy.”

“Democracy is listed as one of ALA’s Core Values of Librarianship,” she said. “Regarding this core value, the ALA Council notes that ‘The publicly supported library provides free and equal access to information for all people of the community the library serves.’ The ALA Council also previously stated that libraries are an ‘American Value’; they are at the heart of the community—a resource for people of any age to find what they need to help improve their quality of life.”

As American generations go, millennials love the public library most of all. A Pew Research Center analysis released in 2017 showed millennials use public libraries more than other age groups.

Pelayo-Lozada said this love affair is likely due to the fact that millennials as a generation were entering adulthood “during a recession and through multiple life-changing world events.”

“Millennials understand the importance of free and equitable access to information as well as the need to support those institutions that provide it,” she said. “From a practical standpoint, as pay increases do not match living expense increases, access to the public library allows millennials to enjoy culture and participate in education and learning at no cost, helping to alleviate some of the financial pressures they may be experiencing.”

While the public library system has remained steadfast in what many Americans would agree is its traditional function—the ALA’s first-listed core value is to be a space that offers access to information—Pelayo-Lozada pointed out that it has evolved significantly over time. In recent years, for instance, many libraries across the U.S. have been doing away with late fees. Studies by various library systems showed late fees primarily impacted people living in poor neighborhoods where the residents are more likely communities of people of color.

“The mission of the library has always been about access to information, literacy, learning, and culture,” Pelayo-Lozada said. “Public libraries have evolved from spaces that included membership fees and practiced exclusion based on class and race to spaces that are open for all. The ability of the public library to reimagine itself to the needs of society has been an ongoing significant achievement.”

The ALA released a Resolution on Monetary Library Fines as a Form of Social Inequity in 2019 that details its decision to support eliminating late fees charged by public libraries.

She notes that because libraries are “hyperlocal institutions,” they have been able to translate the overarching mission of the public library in a range of ways over time, as needs and challenges have arisen.

“As the world navigated the [COVID-19] pandemic, many libraries expanded the range of support they offer for workforce and small business development—including formal coworking spaces, networking events, and programs to assist with the development of business plans or market research,” she said. “As the needs of our communities change, so do the services and resources available through our libraries, from a Library of Things, to mobile technology labs, to vibrant maker spaces.”

She said in recent years the library system added sustainability as a core value of librarianship, and ALA works to support libraries in the development of sustainable models.

“Libraries play an important and unique role in promoting community awareness about resilience, climate change, and a sustainable future,” she said.

Historically, the development of the public library system in the U.S. has in many ways pushed the edges of the concept of public institutions. The small Peterborough Town Library in New Hampshire, established in 1833, was the first documented free, public library in the world. In the period between 1870 and 1930, local public libraries emerged as a widespread institution of community life.

Pelayo-Lozada said in comparison to public libraries from around the world, “American libraries often set the standard for the type of experiences and materials offered to patrons.”

“International counterparts have said that the advocacy work we do for all communities such as emerging ethnic communities and services to the incarcerated support their mission to bring these types of demographic-focused services to their own libraries when administrators may interpret more homogenous communities,” she said.

“Because libraries have the ability to serve as innovative and creative spaces, there are opportunities to pilot, test, and launch various types of programming, which can be case-studied, replicated, and adapted to fit the needs of libraries in their respective communities.”

One example of this, she said, is ALA’s Libraries Build Business initiative. For the initiative, 13 libraries received grants to start or grow small business programming, in an effort to provide support, advice, and networking opportunities around small businesses and entrepreneurship. The cohort collaborated to answer questions, pilot projects, develop resources, and share what they learned with the wider library community.

While the international community may look to America’s libraries as exemplary, support for public libraries in the U.S. has been a mixed bag. In the sociopolitical climate in the U.S., especially following four years of divisive Trump administration rhetoric, there has been an increased politicization of information and data. Some states and cities have been in the process of defunding public libraries. There has been a movement by the far right to censor books in schools and efforts to ban some books entirely.

“Public libraries serve everyone in the community, and library collections, by necessity, must reflect the diversity of thought and values that exist in every community,” said Pelayo-Lozada. “Public libraries are the bastions of democracy, access, and critical thinking and are at the forefront of protecting our freedom to read and our freedom to information.”

She said efforts by governments and cities across the nation to defund the public library indicate “a threat and a misunderstanding of the essential role that libraries play in our society and our democracy.”

“By breaking down institutions that support the public good, those who are threatening to decrease funding are breaking down the very fabric of our society and our right to information,” she said.

She said in an increasingly divided world, many people use information and access to information to disenfranchised communities from being full participants in society.

“Libraries and library workers are attacked as a tool of a minority of voices seeking to silence diverse ideas and abolish free and equitable access to information, eroding this country’s commitment to freedom of expression,” she said. “Operating in this world, public libraries are essential public goods that allow individuals to bring these ideas together and learn from each other, at no cost to the individual. As a true public benefit, public libraries are essential to creating an inclusive society where everyone is able to fully participate.”

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  1. John Steinbach

    Very nice article, but this jumped out: “In the sociopolitical climate in the U.S., especially following four years of divisive Trump administration rhetoric, there has been an increased politicization of information and data.”

    This sociopolitical climate reflects both “the right” and “the left.” Who remembers Tipper Gore’s and C. Dolores Tucker’s Parents Music Research Center from the 1990s attempting & often succeeding in censoring music? And then there were efforts about 10 years ago to ban Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird, Black Boy etc. And, the current campaign to censor social media…

    1. Arizona Slim

      ISTR the Dead Kennedys releasing a song with the title, “Save Me, Tipper! They’re Playing Bon Jovi At Me!” It was about Manuel Noriega’s time in the papal nuncio in Panama City. US troops were playing loud rock to flush him out, and, I also STR, it worked.

    2. Carolinian

      efforts about 10 years ago to ban Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird, Black Boy etc.

      Thank you. Cancel culture swings back and forth and isn’t all about Trump. Indeed the “This Is a Safe Space” sticker at the entrance to my main library is–IMO–exactly what libraries are not about. There’s a very real danger that the effort to turn libraries into all purpose social support sites will alienate the institution’s most loyal if aging constituency.

      And yet that last is inevitable I fear and is reflected in the thinning parking lot outside our main library. Helping homeless people is not a bad thing and is widely accepted but expensive additions like Maker Spaces add little and smack of desperation. Indeed it often seems like the only thing keeping up the door count would be the children’s library and the mothers–middle class for the most part, not poor–bringing their kids for story hour and books–a welcome get out of the house.

      Here in my town we have always had a good library and are grateful for same. It seems to be hanging in despite Covid and the many other challenges. But the above may be a bit rose tinted. Much of what libraries once did now takes place online. Should recession happen they will be under considerable threat in less committed communities.

    3. Whiteylockmandoubled

      Nice piece about our remaining socialist institution. As a librarian’s spouse, I can say that the psychotic right wing grooming/trans/omg the gays!/Wokeism is the Devil hysteria is real, organized, funded, deeply toxic and a source of daily stress for library staff. The level of ignorance and venom these campaigns bring to their fight is nauseating – more often or not they’re triggered by false and wildly exaggerated versions of particular programs at a particular library. It’s also, as President Pelayo-Lozada-Lozada says, a source of persistent (and pernicious) downward pressure on resources, in some jurisdictions an existential threat.

      But yes, locating hostility to the values of the public library solely in movements associated with one of the country’s political parties is wrong. The security state has always sought to use the library as a means of surveillance, harassment and “pre-emotive” law enforcement. Lately, those efforts carry a blue tinge.

      As libraries have become centers for residents (not just “citizens”, btw) on the wrong side of the digital divide to gain access to online information, libraries are struggling with how to curate the internet. Most generally prohibit viewing porn, but many systems – some willingly and some by force of state law – use commercial filtering software that tells users whether a source is legitimate or accurate. These reflect the views of the “misinformation” and “disinformation” expert industry that has been so busy finding Kremlin Talking Points in any criticism of US foreign policy and national Democratic policy priorities generally. Imagine finding bright red labels warning of unreliability on the bindings of books by authors that the CIA or DNC disapprove of as you peruse the stacks.

      So many of us have library stories. I remember the wonder I felt in second grade at the sheer number of sports biographies on the shelves in my school library, and my delight in devouring them whole, a pleasure that made me a reader for life. Or leaving the basketball court on a blistering Washington summer day in junior high school to treat a bee sting in a nearby branch only to find suddenly that four deliciously cool hours had disappeared into a novel. If refuge, pleasure and learning for everyone aren’t worth fighting for, nothing is.

    4. Paul Kleinman

      Tipper Gore was hardly a leftist. She was a part of the Establishment who contributed to the repressive character of the right-center domination of Party leaders over the the Democratic Party rank and file. . Her husband was an entrenched Republicrat who was so indifferent about whether the 2000 Presidency went to the Republicans that he immediately ceded the election to Bush, despite the fact that Broward County Democrats were demanding an investigation about the lobsided rejection of ballots by the Republican official in charge of ballot counting.

  2. mariagostrey

    as a deeply introverted child in a large, highly extroverted family, my happiest hours were spent in libraries. my son, though very social, also spent a lot of time in libraries. good readers make good travellers.

    1. The Rev Kev

      I too spent an inordinate amount of time at the State Library in Sydney as a teenager as well as the research library at the University of Sydney. It helped make me aware of the enormous amount of knowledge that was available just by walking in the place. And now not only do some people want to take this away by saying that it can be all put online (it can’t), but they do not mention that not only will you be charged for “access” to this knowledge but that it will be censored down until you get to a Disney level of knowledge.

      1. Carla

        My late -ex grew up in suburban Montreal. His family did not live near a public library so he stole paperback books from the local drug store. When he moved to NE Ohio, he was quite surprised by the wealth of public libraries here. (I imagine the Montreal suburbs may have caught up or surpassed us by now.) Having two branches of our local public library less than a mile’s walk from home is one of the enduring joys of my life.

  3. KLG

    Librarians, teachers, and nurses are doing God’s work on this earth. I live right across the street from our main public library, which is across the street from a small city park that was site of the first public water works here. The underlying spring is diverted through a lined bed in the park except during winter. Quite the playground! Both still going strong, despite political murmurs from the crowd with Amazon Prime accounts on both sides of the aisle, who do not seem to read much come to think of it or use public parks. We have one large park that dates to 1823, recently refurbished with SPLOST funding. The children’s section of the library is one of the joys of civilization. All reasons for hope if not optimism.

  4. Joe Well

    Living in Latin America, where the public sphere is so small compared to the US, as a direct result of inequality, the relative paucity of parks (and even just benches to sit on the street), especially state forests and hiking areas, bus shelters, senior centers, community centers (though not many of these in the US anyway), and lending libraries is very notable (there are small libraries that generally do not circulate books, presumably for fear of not getting them back). University campuses are not the quasi-public places they are in the US but are more like gated communities or private office buildings if in cities. The fee parks tend not to have picnic tables or anything to encourage lingering.

    Two big exceptions: the “polideportivos” which are almost like semi-free public fitness centers but more oriented toward sports. And of course, many more free clinics.

    People cocoon more in their homes and spend time with family, or else go to bars and restaurants with friends.

    The lack of truly public spaces is a visible sign of societies with less trust, less cohesion, and less opportunities for anything whether economic, social, or purely aesthetic.

    This is the future of the US, though like Argentina, we’ll probably cling to the remnants of our highly developed past, like libraries.

  5. antidlc

    Several years ago I caught wind of an attempt to privatize our local library and started attending the city council meetings where the idea was discussed. I could not believe the turnout at these meetings. A group of anti-privatization members of the community rallied the troops and got people to pressure the city council to vote against privatization.

    I will never forget the meeting when the final vote was held. The room was packed and tension was high. The librarians were there, fearful of what a privatization vote would mean for them. Privatization was shot down by ONE vote. Cheers erupted in the council chambers. The librarians cried tears of relief and hugged everyone who showed up to support their local library.

  6. Peter VE

    Our local Public Library ( actually a private non profit, with most of the funding coming from taxes) recently did a major remodel of their building. They added a maker space, Teen Loft, space to rent to a cafe, and a grand staircase up through the building. To fit these, they removed many (hundreds of?) feet of book stacks. I have had the experience of them removing a book ( Toynbee’s “A Study of History”) while I was partway through reading it. After the remodel, many decades of old magazines were discarded. They haven’t thrown out the microfilms of the local newspaper, though, so we haven’t lost everything yet.
    I’m a little less sanguine about the future of libraries than the author of this piece.

    1. CanCyn

      You make the mistake of assuming libraries are still focused on books. The public library today, are about service to people first and foremost. Librarianship is a service profession. Yes, literacy is very important to librarians, we (retired community college librarian here) certainly see books as a means to that end. But there are many librarians who do not hold the book as a physical object as sacred. Especially books printed in the last few decades. Book preservation is for archivists, not librarians. I can’t tell you how many times I listened to faculty bemoaning the fate of books withdrawn from the shelf when they had rarely circulated. We did our best to have book sales, send to Better World Books, or simply give away. Few went into recycling. No doubt there are treasures in many libraries that should be preserved, especially large old city libraries. I have often thought a large municipal library should probably have an archivist on staff as university libraries do – their mission being different from public libraries, in addition to supporting students and faculty, university libraries also support historical research on most subjects in the curriculum and thus should be keeping and preserving older books. But back to my original point, libraries are for people. More and more so. And their spaces and programs reflect that. The pendulum has swung so far that many libraries are employing social service workers to help with the homeless and other folks not being helped by the more or less non-existent social safety net. I know some librarians who have left public libraries because they don’t want to be social service workers. For some having to learn how to administer Narcan (sp.) for overdoses was a bridge too far. For a look at publics libraries today, check out the movie The Public, staring Emilio Estevan. A feel good movie.

    2. Carolinian

      My main library now plans to add a planetarium–go figure. And I agree with you that the alternatives being thought up to take the place of physical books are often strained at best. Without a doubt we are in a new era and one sympathizes with the challenge this presents.

      But the reality is that ebooks–and I read them constantly–can’t replace older and precious books that should stay on the shelf rather than being sold off for pennies at the library book store. And locally, anecdotally, the effort to make our highly valued library more popular seems to be having the opposite effect. There’s no doubt that Covid has discouraged many or put them out of the habit of library use and that this is a factor. But the librarians where I go have been looking decidedly gloomy.

  7. Fred

    Most libraries have used book sales. You can donate your old books and they will be sold for operating revenue. Sometimes they make it onto the shelves and become part of collection for lending.
    One of the most useful items in the library is the current and old copies of Consumer Reports Magazine which allows one to buy the best used or new cars, and other items.
    Plus many libraries belong to nationwide subscription services that allow you to read for free what are paid subscriptions to magaziness and data services. Often libraries will have museum passes to allow patrons to get in free.

    1. Carla

      I just have to brag. Admission to the Cleveland Museum of Art has always been and remains free to everyone. The original deed of trust states that it is to be “For the Benefit of All the People Forever.” !!!

  8. curlydan

    Take a look at your property tax bill, and you might see why libraries are so great. I think they generally get good funding. I pay $102 a year for the county library via my property taxes, and I’m guessing my neighbors are paying about the same amount. As someone mentioned above, it is a great socialist institution.

  9. Robert Gray

    ‘Public libraries continue to thrive …’

    Alas, not everywhere. Finland has received a fair bit of attention in recent years for the high standard of its education system. Traditionally, Finns have been readers — but the times they are a-changin’. Just a couple of days ago came this:

    > Finnish libraries face uncertain future as visitor numbers drop
    > The proportion of Finland’s population that regularly uses library facilities has fallen
    > from about half in 2006 to one third in the 2020s.

    The article refers to a report published this week by the Ministry of Education and Culture. Unfortunately, the prognosis is bleak indeed:

    > The report anticipates that the popularity of libraries will continue to decline in the future, and
    > Finland’s extensive network of libraries is likely to become a memory from a bygone era.
    [emphasis added]

  10. Rubicon

    We are glad to hear some or many US public libraries remain fully operational. It is not the case in the State of Washington, however.
    To be specific, Vancouver, seen a rapid decline in the following services:
    During Covid, most Microsoft computers were removed. They’re down to about 5 now.
    A huge reduction in staff — amount 3/4s smaller now
    Many magazines used to line five bookcases; we’re down to one bookcase now
    Children used to come to the main library, but no more. There’s no staff to oversee them.
    We used to have a number of homeless people visit the library. Guards at the door no longer allow them in.
    In essence, this main library looks and feels bare with nary an employee around.

  11. Rajeev Jain

    What needs to be at the CORE of a Public Library? We need a definition that cuts across historical and cultural boundaries.
    I can’t think of anything better than
    – Library = “access to information”
    – Public = access not limited by any economic instrument.

    If you accept this, the biggest need for a public library in this time is to provide internet-based content free from censorship or paywalls or ad-supported content.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Internet content is not free. It requires having to have a device and access to power. By contrast, you can check out a library book, which is free, and not be constrained in its use.

      1. Rajeev Jain

        Agreed, I didn’t mean a public library should provide content only over the internet, because of the real barriers that you mention. So,

        Internet kiosks at the library = reading room.

        Curated selection of internet resources behind a library login = bookshelf.

        By the way, I am quite happy with our local Austin Public Libraries. Your article makes me want to go there more often and talk to some of the folks there about the challenges they face.

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