Postscript about the Public Libraries - Ruth Perry

The MLA "Statement on the Significance of Primary Records" is part of a wider professional response from the library and scholarly communities to problems of funding and space that they are encountering in their efforts to preserve the print record. The conservation of damaged or deteriorating books and the creation and distribution of adequate reproductions of manuscripts and printed texts for scholars and students without access to originals are two issues that concern those responsible for transmitting to the next generation our cultural and intellectual heritage. Less well understood and publicized but also crucial to the future of our culture is the threat posed to local public libraries by cutbacks in public spending. The closing of even small neighborhood branch libraries, with the loss of their collections, means that the public suffers an irreplaceable loss of a wide variety of books, many dating back to earlier eras and containing material as well as intellectual evidence of cultural history. Furthermore, while these closings may not directly affect the lives of academic professionals with their university library cards, specialized private collections, and online computer texts, they accelerate our society's alienation from books and reading culture and thus in the long run undermine the work we do and the textual history we value. Most important, the defunding of public libraries stymies the taste for books and reading in those who are poor and less mobile and cuts off their access to a quiet, noncommercial place of respite and imaginative renewal.

Every state in this country has seen branch libraries close or cut back their hours in the last decade. Operating with reduced staffs, many small branch libraries stay open only a few hours a week, often when people working nine-to-five cannot get to them. Cutbacks in federal funding in combination with the diminishing tax base for many state budgets (a function of disappearing industry and declining property taxes) are making it impossible to keep libraries open at times and in neighborhoods most convenient for the people who most need libraries. Meanwhile Buck-a-Book stores are springing up in many shopping malls, and large chain bookstores flourish, testifying to a newly structured mass market for books and a new level of commodification of literacy and reading.

In California this year there is a statewide library crisis because of the reallocation of local property taxes from library budgets to school districts. It is an expressive double bind—to promote either public libraries or schools, either public ownership of books or institutional selection of reading materials, either autonomous browsing or regulated learning, either book culture or textbook culture, but not both. Although the California case has a special poignancy, libraries everywhere have been in trouble since at least 1990, given their shrinking resources to maintain collections and pay expert staff.

Some larger public libraries, forced to raise money and save space, have been selling their older, out-of-print books to private dealers. Used book dealers will tell you that the market in rare books is picking up again as libraries quietly deaccession to make ends meet. But the cheapest way to dispose of books when they are beyond repair or when bulging shelves need relief is simply to throw them away. Susan Koppelman, known for her anthologies of nineteenth-century women's stories, was dismayed to learn, on repeatedly submitting call slips for nineteenth-century American women's novels and collections of short stories in the Saint Louis Public Library, that many rare and important volumes were permanently unavailable because they had ended up in a landfill. Indeed, according to Koppelman, many of the sources from which she gleaned her first short story collection, Old Maids (1984), have been fatally deaccessioned. It has been reported that the works of Langston Hughes and Edmund Wilson were removed from some New England municipal libraries, probably because of the poor condition of the books, but the libraries apparently had no funding to replace them.

Built long ago as a public resource funded by taxpayers' money, the network of public libraries in this country belongs to everyone and to no one in particular. These public buildings with their irreplaceable collections of books are our common property, like parks and beaches and highways. They are not a phenomenon of the market; not much money changes hands for the service they provide. The current Congress is less inclined to support public enterprises than to privatize them, but while some private service industries, like the mail businesses, are turning a profit, so far no one has figured out how to turn a profit from the public libraries. Still, there is clearly more money to be made from selling books than from lending them, and library collections, of no obvious fiscal advantage to anyone, are being allowed quietly to run down, despite the dedication of many library workers and managers and the needs of the public.

Yet public libraries are the very cornerstone of a true democracy. They provide access to information and ideas about everything a thinking citizen might want to know to make a reasoned judgment, cast a vote, or register an opinion. Democratic access to knowledge is essential to the free play of ideas, a concept originating in the Enlightenment and very much conditioned by the rise and spread of print culture. Books provide literary art and entertainment. They support productive aims as well and are the resource of inventors and dreamers. They supply information on everything from building machines and filing patents to fertilizing gardens and raising children. A free society needs free public libraries.

In our century, public libraries have also been an important wellspring of serious literary production. Many of our best writers educated themselves in public libraries, browsing the open shelves, absorbing influences, coming upon unknown authors long out of print, following the trail of sudden interest and inspiration. Libraries thus represent our literary future as well as our literary heritage. Where will the poets and citizens of the future make their unexpected discoveries? Where will they roam uncalculatingly among writers out of fashion and not to be found in any undergraduate syllabus? Aspiring writers cannot buy everything they need to read. And how many poets can afford computer access to online texts--even if screen reading were the same as hand-held book reading? Democratic access to books in our thousands of public libraries will not soon be replaced by any electronic or market mechanisms. Professors of literature in particular should be aware of the cultural cost of the erosion of this public resource.

A letter written by the author Helena Maria Viramontes in 1993 as part of a campaign to save a local library makes the case eloquently:

Several weeks ago I was informed that a branch library in the city of Orange [California], appropriately called "The Friendly Stop / La Parada De Amistad," is being shut down. This deeply concerns me. I have been involved with the library which is a trailer situated in the barrio of West-Central Orange. The one room library is constantly visited by Latina/os primarily, mostly teens, who have found the library a comfortable reprieve from the streets. They read, receive homework assistance, or become involved in the many bilingual activities the library has to offer. . . .

How many of us Chicana/o-Latina/o writers grew up in bookless homes? How many of us found solace and rapture in being able to attend the library, sit in a quiet place and read or have the right to exercise our imaginations? I, for one, made an office of a library chair and a piece of table where I would sit for hours and read, conduct meetings, write in my journal, dream, even nap. In a house with eleven people, this library space was my private heaven. It was a space filled with floating answers, infinite questions, and the quiet time for meditation. It was a space for me like no other and we simply can't sit by and let this experience be ripped away from our youth who so very much need it AND want it.

Viramontes speaks for thousands of intellectuals and writers who rely on such oases in our speedy and materialistic world. More, she speaks for the poor and on behalf of the young at risk.

Free public space is in increasingly short supply in this country; there are few places to go any more and few things to do that do not cost money. Public libraries are among the last places left where all people are welcome, qualified for admittance merely by their humanity, curiosity, and literacy. Public libraries symbolize the commitment of our society to something other than commercial exchange. They provide democratic access to books and knowledge for a broad cross section of our population including the elderly, the self-educated, immigrants, children, the poor. It is extremely shortsighted for academics to ignore the current defunding of public libraries and the real and symbolic threats it poses to the reading public and to extracurricular book culture. We need to defend our public libraries for the sake of an informed citizenry and for our children's children, the readers and writers of the future. Our art and our politics depend on the fullest possible access to the cultural record. If we do not make the effort to keep our libraries intact during these lean years, we will jeopardize for all time what is best in our society.

The author is Professor of Literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Works Cited

Koppelman, Susan. Telephone conversations with the author. 25 and 27 Apr. 1995.

Viramontes, Helena Maria. Fax to the author. 3 May 1995.