• Print
  • TWEET

In Praise of Public Libraries

Ex Libris

a film directed by Frederick Wiseman
Bates Hall reading room, Boston Public Library, 2017
Haizhan Zheng/Getty Images
Bates Hall, the reading room at the Boston Public Library, 2017

Years ago, I lived in a remote mountain town that had never had a public library. The town was one of the largest in New York State by area but small in population, with a couple thousand residents spread out over about two hundred square miles. By the time my husband and I moved there, the town had lost most of its economic base—in the nineteenth century it had supported a number of tanneries and mills—and our neighbors were mainly employed seasonally, if at all. When the regional library system’s bookmobile was taken out of service, the town had no easy access to books. The town board proposed a small tax increase to fund a library, something on the order of ten dollars per household. It was soundly defeated. The dominant sentiments seemed to be “leave well enough alone” and “who needs books?” Then there was the man who declared that “libraries are communist.”

By then, through the machinations of the town board, which scrounged up $15,000 from its annual budget and deputized me and two retired teachers to—somehow—turn that money into a lending library, we had around three thousand books on loan from the regional library consortium tucked into a room at the back of town hall. We’d been advised by librarians at the consortium that five hundred library cards would take us through the first year. They took us through the first three weeks. Our librarian, whose previous job was running a used bookstore, turned out to be a master of handselling, even to the rough-and-tumble loggers and guys on the road crew who brought their kids in for story time and left with novels he’d pulled for them, and then came back, alone, for more. Books were being checked out by the bagful; there were lines at the circulation desk. Children especially, but sometimes adults, couldn’t believe it was all free.

By year’s end we had signed up about 1,500 patrons, and there was a book club, a preschool story hour, movie night, and a play-reading group. High school students, many of whom did not have Internet access at home, came in the afternoon to do their homework. People pressed books into the hands of strangers who did not stay strangers for long. And it occurred to me one Saturday, as I watched quilters sitting at our one table trade patterns and children clear the shelves of The Magic School Bus series, racing to check them out, that the man who had said that libraries were communist had been right. A public library is predicated on an ethos of sharing and egalitarianism. It is nonjudgmental. It stands in stark opposition to the materialism and individualism that otherwise define our culture. It is defiantly, proudly, communal. Even our little book-lined room, with its mismatched furniture and worn carpet, was, as the sociologist Eric Klinenberg reminds us libraries were once called, a palace for the people.

Klinenberg is interested in the ways that common spaces can repair our fractious and polarized civic life. And though he argues in his new book, Palaces for the People, that playgrounds, sporting clubs, diners, parks, farmer’s markets, and churches—anything, really, that puts people in close contact with one another—have the capacity to strengthen what Tocqueville called the cross-cutting ties that bind us to those who in many ways are different from us, he suggests that libraries may be the most effective. “Libraries are the kinds of places where ordinary people with different backgrounds, passions, and interests can take part in a living democratic culture,” he writes. Yet as Susan Orlean observes in her loving encomium to libraries everywhere, aptly titled The Library Book, “The publicness of the public library is an increasingly rare commodity. It becomes harder all the time to think of places that welcome everyone and don’t charge any money for that warm embrace.”

As Klinenberg points out:

“Infrastructure” is not a term conventionally used to describe the underpinnings of social life…[but] if states and societies do not recognize social infrastructure and how it works, they will fail to see a powerful way to promote civic engagement and social interaction, both within communities and across group lines.

To glimpse what he means, one need only dip into Frederick Wiseman’s epic and inspirational three-hour-and-seventeen-minute documentary Ex Libris, a picaresque tour of the grandest people’s palace of all: the New York Public Library system, a collection of ninety-two branches with seventeen million annual patrons (and millions more online). Wiseman trains his lens on the quotidian (people lining up to get into the main branch or poring over books), the obscure (a voice actor recording a book for the blind), and the singular (Khalil Muhammad discussing the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), and without saying so explicitly (the film is unnarrated), he shows the NYPL to be an exemplar of what a library is and what it can do. Here we see librarians helping students with math homework, hosting job fairs, running literacy and citizenship classes, teaching braille, and sponsoring lectures. We see people using computers, Wi-Fi hotspots, and, of course, books. They are white, black, brown, Asian, young, homeless, not-so-young, deaf, hearing, blind; they are everyone, which is the point. If you want to understand why the Trump administration eliminated federal funding for libraries in its 2018, 2019, and 2020 proposed budgets, it’s on display in this film: public libraries dismantle the walls between us.

This is by design. A statement issued by the Public Library Association in 1982 called “The Public Library: Democracy’s Resource” said:

The public library is unique among our American institutions. Only the public library provides an open and nonjudgmental environment in which individuals and their interests are brought together with the universe of ideas and information…. The uses made of the ideas and information are as varied as the individuals who seek them. Public libraries freely offer access to their collections and services to all members of the community without regard to race, citizenship, age, education level, economic status, or any other qualification or condition.

Free access to ideas and information, a prerequisite to the existence of a responsible citizenship, is as fundamental to America as are the principles of freedom, equality and individual rights.

The public loves the public library. Klinenberg cites a Pew Research Center study from 2016 that showed that more than 90 percent of Americans consider the library “very” or “somewhat” important to their community. Pew researchers also found that about half of all Americans sixteen and older had used the library in the past year. Even so, libraries are often convenient targets for budget cuts. After the financial crisis, in the years 2008–2013, for example, New York City eliminated $68 million from the operating budget of the New York Public Library, which resulted in a dramatic drop in staff hours and in its acquisition budget. (A fair amount of Ex Libris is given over to poignant behind-the-scenes discussions about budgets.) But it wasn’t just the New York Public Library that was suffering. A study by the American Library Association around the same time found that twenty-one states reported cuts in library funding.

This had happened before, and is happening today: libraries, which are supported by local, state, and federal monies, as well as by private donations, are chronically underfunded and subject to the whims of politicians and philanthropists. In a 1972 letter published in these pages, a group of scholars and writers including Hannah Arendt, William Buckley, Ralph Ellison, and Betty Friedan, among many others, decried budget cuts that were curtailing services at the main branch of the New York Public Library:

At one time the Library’s doors were open to the public thirteen hours a day, on 365 days of the year; then the working man, the untrained, unmatriculated scholar could use freely and anonymously, at no cost to himself, the riches of the reference collections. A year ago, however, the Library’s financial crisis forced early closing of the reference division at 6 PM, and complete closing on weekends and holidays.

The signatories were asking for readers to contribute to the library’s research and reference collections. The letter ran under the headline “Crisis in the NY Public Library.” (The main branch is now open on Sundays for four hours; most of the smaller branch libraries are closed that day.)

In 2008 the private-equity billionaire Stephen Schwarzman donated $100 million to the cash-strapped NYPL. The library’s flagship Beaux-Arts building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, which opened in 1911 and took sixteen years to complete at a cost of $9 million (plus $20 million for the land on which it sits), now bears his name. One hundred million dollars is a lot of money, but it pales in comparison to the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie, the patron saint of libraries (and rabid industrialist), whose $55 million largesse—the equivalent of $1.6 billion today—funded 2,509 libraries worldwide, 1,679 of them public libraries in the United States, between 1886 and 1919. Sixty-seven of them were in New York City, sixteen of which are still in use.

Carnegie’s devotion to libraries was long-standing. His father helped found the Tradesmen’s Subscription Library in Dunfermline, Scotland, where he was a weaver and a member of the failed Chartist Movement. When industrialization cost him his job, the family emigrated to the Pittsburgh area, and at thirteen, after only five years of formal schooling, Carnegie was sent out to work, first as a bobbin boy in a cotton factory and later as a messenger for a telegraph company. Working boys were allowed to borrow one book a week from the private library of Colonel James Anderson, a successful local iron manufacturer and veteran of the War of 1812. Carnegie wrote in his autobiography:

It was from my own early experience that I decided there was no use to which money could be applied so productive of good to boys and girls who have good within them and ability and ambition to develop it, as the founding of a public library in a community which is willing to support it as a municipal institution. I am sure that the future of those libraries I have been privileged to found will prove the correctness of this opinion.

Carnegie’s first American library, in Braddock, Pennsylvania, was built about a hundred years after the founding of the first public library in what would become the United States. In 1790, the residents of Franklin, Massachusetts, chose to allow a collection of books donated to the town by its namesake, Benjamin Franklin, to be circulated among its residents without charge. In so doing, they chose not to follow Franklin’s lead: in 1731 he had founded a subscription library in Philadelphia. Massachusetts was also the site of the first major public library system, Boston’s, founded in 1854. Carnegie’s Braddock library was different from these: in addition to books, it had a 964-seat, velvet-curtained theater, a basketball court, and a swimming pool. Its mission was to exercise both mind and body. These days, the Braddock library, an imposing, turreted building up the hill from Carnegie’s shuttered steel mill, has fallen into disrepair, and a group is attempting to raise $10 million for renovations—not from a person of great wealth, but one billion pennies donated by the public. (They’ve raised $40,000 so far.)

Carnegie libraries stretch from one end of the country to the other, the 106 in New York State eclipsed by 142 in California. Six of these were in Los Angeles, a city of just over one hundred thousand at the turn of the twentieth century when Carnegie made his grants; three are still in use. No Carnegie money was used to build what would become the city’s Central Library. Founded in 1872 as a small fee-based organization whose five-dollar annual subscription was out of reach for most citizens, by 1933 it was circulating more books than any other library in the country.

Orlean nimbly documents this phenomenal growth, moving backward from the fire that roared through Central Library in 1986, while roving through the library as it is today, “an intricate machine, a contraption of whirring gears.” In so doing, she achieves on paper what Wiseman does on film: by acquainting the reader with the library’s actual infrastructure—the shipping department that sends 32,000 books around the city every weekday; the photography and map collections; the reference librarians on call to answer questions about, say, Pussy Riot, obituary etiquette, and the life span of parrots; the staff members who teach coding to children and connect homeless patrons with much-needed services—she reveals why it is such a valuable community resource and a perfect example of what Klinenberg is talking about when he extols the benefits of social infrastructure.

When the Los Angeles Central Library caught fire, it burned at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for seven hours. Four hundred thousand books were destroyed, among them the library’s entire collection of American and British plays, all the books about the Bible and church history, 45,000 works of literature, 18,000 social science books, 12,000 cookbooks, every bird book, 5.5 million patent listings dating back to 1799, and more, none of it covered by insurance. Orlean pursues in a desultory way the mystery of who—if anyone—started the fire, and why. Book burning, in her view, is a kind of genocide, a way to wipe out the collective memory of a people: Mao (a librarian himself), the Nazis, book-burning festival-goers during the Spanish Inquisition, and, just last year, a religious zealot who burned a number of LGBTQ children’s books he’d checked out from an Iowa public library—all engaged in “libricide” to incinerate ideas and erase whole swaths of history. If the Central Library fire was deliberate, to what end?

Like others who have investigated the fire, Orlean sets her sights on a mostly out-of-work actor and ne’er-do-well named Harry Peak, who may or may not have been in the building the morning of the fire, bumped into an older patron rushing out, been the young man shooed out of the staff room where he’d helped himself to a cup of coffee, been the same young man who was told to leave one of the library’s restricted areas, or been the blond young man in the picture drawn by a sketch artist after hearing descriptions of the person who had done these things. Arson turns out to be difficult to determine, especially in an aging building known to have faulty wiring, and Peak, who died in 1993, turned out to be a distinctively unreliable narrator. More than once he claimed to have been in the library that morning, yet at other times said he’d been nowhere near it. His alibis twist and turn and twist again, which was little surprise to those who knew him (his sister called him “the biggest bullshitter in the world”) but flummoxed law enforcement, who spectacularly failed to pin the crime on him, arresting him but eventually releasing him for lack of evidence.

A bookmobile at the Rockville Fair in Maryland, 1928
Library of Congress
A bookmobile at the Rockville Fair in Maryland, 1928

Despite her best efforts, Orlean, too, is unable to solve the case. “The Central Library fire confounded me,” she writes. “As hard as I tried, I couldn’t completely convince myself that Harry started the fire.” For readers entertained by Peak’s peregrinations, this is of little consequence. His story is a sidebar to a bigger and more enchanting mystery: how a library rose out of almost nothing to become, as its name suggests, central to the residents of the second-largest city in the country, lending more than 900,000 books a year, answering six million reference questions, and welcoming 700,000 patrons. This nut Orlean easily and delightfully cracks.

The growth of Central Library mirrored the growth of Los Angeles. In 1873, when the subscription library opened, California had been a state for less than twenty-five years and Los Angeles had a population of fewer than 11,000 people. By 1904, the population had grown tenfold, and the library was circulating nearly 800,000 books a year. Fewer than twenty years later, when the number of residents was over half a million, one thousand books were being checked out each hour, about three million annually. Indeed, plotted on a graph, population growth and library circulation figures would appear coterminous. If this seems obvious, it’s only because we have come to assume the importance of libraries and their services to all members of the community.

What makes Central Library unique, and its story so entertaining, are the people who shepherded it through its metamorphosis. Many were women, well before librarianship became a female domain. Orlean introduces readers to Mary Foy, who in 1880, at eighteen years of age, took over Central Library’s forerunner, the subscription library that at the time didn’t allow women to borrow books and relegated them to a separate “Ladies’ room.” Two female librarians succeeded her, and then a third: a newspaper reporter from Ohio named Tessa Kelso, a short-haired, cigarette-smoking woman who was described at the time as “unconventional.”

Kelso had the foresight to anticipate the library as we now know it, imagining it to be a repository not only of books but of sporting equipment and board games and “the whole paraphernalia of healthy, wholesome amusement that is…out of the reach of the average boy and girl.” Before she could see that vision through, Kelso was pushed out of her job for adding to the collection Le Cadet, a novel by the French author Jean Richepin, which was considered risqué by some of the city’s arbiters of morality. She sued one of them, a Methodist minister named J.W. Campbell, for slander, and though she won (the church settled) she still lost her job.

Then there was Mary Jones, who was summarily dismissed in 1905 when the library board suddenly decided it would rather have a man running the library. Jones fought the decision, rallying a thousand women to petition the mayor and library board on her behalf, and, when that got no response, to take to the streets. She eventually gave up, moved east, and became head librarian at Bryn Mawr.

Orlean has the most fun recounting the misadventures and peccadillos of Jones’s successor, a bon vivant named Charles Lummis. Lummis was a writer whose first book, Birch Bark Poems, was published on birch bark he’d peeled and stitched together himself, and who gained national fame when he chronicled his walk from the east coast, where he’d dropped out of Harvard, to California, where he was to take up a position at the Los Angeles Times. His penchant for disappearing for weeks at a time to go tramping or to preside over orgiastic bacchanals eventually cost him his job at the newspaper and did not abate when he took over the library. Still, Orlean credits him with making the library “the institution it is today…[pushing] for it to become a serious research center for scholars” and establishing its photography collection, as well as collections of Spanish and Californian history. “His ambition was to make the library completely accessible—‘a workshop for scholars including every painter’s apprentice or working boy or streetcar man who wishes to learn, just as much as it includes the Greek professors or the art dilettante,’” Orlean writes, quoting Lummis. “His attitude of inclusiveness was unusual for the time. He campaigned to bring in patrons who hadn’t considered using the library before.” This is the essence and the calling of the public library today.

Last July an economics professor at Long Island University published an article in Forbes arguing that public libraries should be closed because they had outlived their usefulness now that Netflix streams movies, Starbucks offers free Wi-Fi, and, most conveniently, electronic books are instantly available from Amazon. Closing libraries in favor of Amazon would be a win-win, he said, because taxes would go down while Amazon’s share price would go up. The professor was especially enamored of the company’s cashierless storefronts, which, in his estimation, “basically combines a library with a Starbucks.” The “library” being referred to, it should be noted, is a commercial enterprise that sells books.

The reaction to the article, once readers realized that it wasn’t satire, was outrage and ridicule, and Forbes removed it from its website about seventy-two hours after it was posted. But the funny thing was that, inadvertently, the writer had made a strong case for the value and continued existence of the public library:

There was a time local libraries offered the local community lots of services in exchange for their tax money. They would bring books, magazines, and journals to the masses through a borrowing system…. They also provided residents with a comfortable place they could enjoy their books. They provided people with a place they could do their research in peace with the help of friendly librarians….

Libraries slowly began to service the local community more. Libraries introduced video rentals and free internet access. The modern local library still provides these services, but they aren’t for free. [Rather they are] financed by taxpayers in [the] form of a “library tax.”

Libraries, of course, were never “free” any more than public schools or public roads or public health nurses are free. One might expect a professor of economics to know this. Or for him to do the math: the per capita “library tax” for the Los Angeles County library system, for example, is only $32.77—or about nine medium-sized Starbucks lattes. There are nine Amazon Go stores in the United States and 16,568 public libraries, many in places where Amazon or Starbucks will never venture, like the branches in the far reaches of the Bronx and Los Angeles where Wiseman and Orlean take us, or the rural outpost where the library I helped found is located.

That library now has about 40,000 items on its shelves, including games and puzzles and sporting equipment, just as Tessa Kelso envisioned well over a century ago. Though small and lacking some of the amenities of a better-resourced community, it is a worthy successor to the libraries Carnegie funded. Those, it should be noted, were not “free” either: before he would make a grant, Carnegie required each town to commit to covering 10 percent of a library’s annual cost as well as supplying its building site. Grantees also had to agree to provide library services at no cost to patrons.

Perhaps the most definitive rebuke to the idea of trading libraries for Amazon and coffee shops comes from a former Starbucks employee whom Klinenberg met at a branch of the New York Public Library, where he is now an “information specialist”: “At Starbucks, and at most businesses, really, the assumption is that you, the customer, are better for having this thing that you purchase. Right?” he said. “At the library, the assumption is you are better. You have it in you already…. The library assumes the best out of people.” What we learn from The Library Book, Ex Libris, and Palaces for the People is that we are all better off, too, when people assume the best out of libraries.