Meritocracy and its Discontents   /   Summer 2016   /    Notes And Comments

No Ordinary Place

Clare Coffey

The circulation desk at your local public library.

Rumors of the death of libraries are greatly exaggerated.

Public libraries have defied many dire prognoses in recent times. As early as 2005, MIT Technology Review warned that the introduction of Google Books might augur its demise: “If Google and others can arrange with publishers and authors to allow low-cost downloads of whole books…then libraries will inevitably recede in importance.” After the recession and the resulting budget cuts, concerns about the library’s future became less abstract and more immediate. In 2011, for instance, the Huffington Post ran a series decrying reduced appropriations and curtailed hours.

But the question of whether libraries are worth saving at all has never gone away. Indeed, according to some, the traditional stacks ought to be abolished altogether. With e-books growing in popularity and accessibility, one Forbes contributor has argued, why maintain unwieldy bound copies of printed text and an arcane decimal-based cataloging system?

For some friends of the library, no defense of the stacks is necessary. While they may concede that dusty piles of unread books are a poor use of taxpayer dollars, these advocates argue that libraries offer much more than books and other printed resources for loan or perusal. Providing access to videos, DVDs, and computers, public libraries are, in a sense, horizontally integrated competitors to Netflix, Amazon, and Apple. They give the public what it wants.

There is nothing inherently wrong—and much that is right—with libraries stocking books, music, and movies that people enjoy. But once you define a library by its market value, you subject it to market tyrannies. Although cranks, scholars, and self-styled upholders of literary standards have noted that the quality of library offerings declines to the extent they are subjected to the same consumer demands that shape the offerings of the commercial culture, something more fundamental is at stake in the conflation of librarians with retail employees.

Some people can afford, for themselves and their children, sufficient refuge from the velvet tyrannies of commercial culture. They buy houses in wooded retreats and send their children to Montessori preschools. They use their leisure to monitor TV time and take their kids on nature walks. They travel to foreign cities and have season passes to the local symphony. They also see to it that their children have library cards from an early age. Libraries are often an integral part of the cultured and deliberate life they cultivate for themselves and their offspring.

When libraries are mentioned in relation to the poor, however, it’s almost always as mechanisms of uplift and social mobility. Libraries, according to the paternalistic defense, give poor or otherwise marginalized children access to educational programs, self-help tools, and services they would otherwise lack. The libraries of Washington, DC, will soon offer 3D printers and startup spaces, all in a bid to make the libraries more efficient at turning passive takers into bootstrapping makers. “Libraries are not their buildings,” Richard Reyes-Gavilan, executive director of the DC Public Library system, recently told the Washington Post. This would-be disruptor described libraries as “engines of human capital.”

But what libraries meant to my childhood cannot be divorced from the physical place. By all measures, as a nine-year-old, I had very little human capital. I’d walk two and a half miles on summer days to sit for hours in the library’s air-conditioning. By design, the building was rambling and given to nooks that were recessed deep between bay windows, where one could be both hidden from and able to watch the outside world. From my favorite nook, at the far end of the children’s section, I could see the street and sidewalk and library garden.

The silence, the anonymity, the apparent vastness of the place, the long rows of shelves and side rooms stocked with forgotten books and hung with oil paintings of forgotten patrons, made the library a more than ordinary place. Owned by no one in particular, it seemed imbued with a wealth of possibility that teemed beneath and on the edges of everyday life. In the library, among books I learned to love and curate, the terms of my encounter with the world slowly shifted. Anyone could be a someone here—and that included me.

It’s easy, of course, to mock the naive, often smug assumption that personal initiative can on any significant scale correct the immiserations of poverty. Access to libraries may or may not help a child on the economic margins move up to a more comfortable social class. It can, however, offer poor children one of the few opportunities to escape the grinding inequities of our late-capitalist economy and experience the rich and quiet life the wealthy can so easily buy.

The library’s mission, neither reformulated nor stratified by class, stands as a public reminder that what rich and poor need is neither different nor complicated. The classes diverge only in their level of access—to food and shelter, to care and time, to culture and all the riches and strangeness of a slow and hidden life.