Right at the end of the year, New York City based columnist for The Guardian, Moira Donegan, wrote a loving piece about how she is thankful for US public libraries.
One of the first things she mentions is that the architecture and design of many libraries is rather intimidating and makes her feel under dressed. She says when she works at tables in New York Public Library’s iconic 42nd Street branch, she is always nervous that someone is going to chase her away. I have written about how people can have a similar experience with arts and cultural organizations. Though many theaters, museums, and libraries are not as grandiose as the 42nd Street branch.
Donegan opines that the US is fortunate to have had the spate of museum construction when it did because it would be difficult to generate public will behind such an effort now. But citizens have garnered immense benefits as a result.
If the public library did not already exist as a pillar of local civic engagement in American towns and cities, there’s no way we would be able to create it. It seems like a relic of a bygone era of public optimism, a time when governments worked to value and edify their people, rather than punish and extract from them. In America, a country that can often be cruel to its citizens, the public library is a surprising kindness.
The majesty of library buildings is matched only by the nobility of their purpose. The public library does not make anyone money; it does not understand its patrons as mere consumers, or as a revenue base. Instead, it aspires to encounter people as minds. The public library exists to grant access to information, to facilitate curiosity, education, and inquiry for their own sake. It is a place where the people can go to pursue their aspirations and their whims, to uncover histories or investigate new scientific discoveries.
When I saw a tweet that NYC Eric Adams was requiring the NYC Public Libraries system to cut “cut their budgets by $13.6 million by the end of fiscal year 2023, and another $20.5 million over the next 3 fiscal years.” My first thought was that he does not truly understand the vast number of social services libraries provide to their communities. They metaphorically serve as the wetlands which buffer communities from the onslaught of hurricanes. Creating an environment where their role is diminished will only serve to magnify the manifestation of social problems throughout the City.
If you don’t know, this year make an effort to explore all the services your local libraries provide to communities from classes, computer access, tax help, shelter from the weather, social services access, counseling and, yeah, books. Likewise think about your own value proposition for the community and increasingly communicate that outside the framework of selling tickets.