If you want an education, go to the library

I have just read an extremely interesting and encouraging article in the New York Review of Books called “In praise of public libraries“, by Sue Halpern. (I should add that, I am not a subscriber to the NYRB, and Halpern’s piece is not behind a pay wall, as far as I can see. The link provided above therefore should take you straight to the piece; let me know if not. As always, I apologise for cross posting.)

The title of her article may seem to promise a dusty and tedious motherhood kind of essay, as faded as those little baskets of pot-pourri one sees in an op shop. On the contrary! The article opens with Halpern’s pacy account of helping bring a public library to a small town in New York State, and how wildly popular this initiative proved. The body of the piece, however, is a review of a couple of books about American public libraries, Palaces for the people by Eric Klinenburg, and The library book by Susan Orlean. (The links in each title point to the Amazon entries.) She makes me want to read both these books — usually the sign of a good review.

One particular aspect of the review which caught my attention was the section devoted to Andrew Carnegie and his eponymous libraries. Public libraries would seem an unusual thing for a red meat capitalist like Carnegie to be interested in. The review explains how this came about. Carnegie, at the age of fifteen, was working as a telegram boy in Pittsburgh. A local iron manufacturer, Colonel James Anderson, allowed working boys to borrow one book a week from his private library. Carnegie’s experience of this philanthropy led him to write later 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.

He put his money where his mouth was, to the tune of $1.6 billion in today’s dollars. This funded 2,509 libraries worldwide. Family members will know that one of these was in Mildura, where my family was living when I first saw the light of day. A voracious reader, Mum’s use of the Carnegie library was probably a factor in her enthusiasm for public libraries. This in turn doubtless contributed to my becoming a shelf monkey for over thirty years. (I am indebted to the Urban Thesaurus for this nomenclature.)

The NYRB piece sets the institution of public libraries squarely in the current climate in which libraries are being either closed, rationalised, or starved of funds. (This is happening here just as much as the United States.) Economic rationalists are sceptical that we need public libraries at all, now that we have Amazon, and Starbucks stores with free wifi. (I know — libraries don’t actually sell books — but apparently economics professors don’t know this.) Halpern provides the interesting figure that, in the Los Angeles County system, the annual per capita library funding figure is around USD$32, which equates to about nine medium-size Starbucks lattes. (In my local area, every $100 of rates revenue includes $6.68 of funding for libraries, arts and cultural services; about half of what is spent on emptying the bins and other “Environment and waste management” services.)

Rather than join the chorus bemoaning the irreparable damage being done to libraries in all sectors — municipal, university, and special — let’s concentrate on the positives. In the financial year 2016-17, the State Library of Victoria had more than two million physical visits, and over four million digital ones. More than a million people visited its exhibitions. A public appeal raised more than $500,000, a record for that institution. “Major gifts” raised another $25 million for its Vision 202 redevelopment plan (see “A year of records for Australia’s most popular state library”, media release 25 September 2017). Okay, that is one flagship library. But it shows that the public and funding sources — even when everything is supposedly available on the internet — are still prepared to support bricks and mortar libraries.

Where did I get the title of this post from? You are forgiven your overdue fine if you recognised Frank Zappa’s incisive words: “If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library” (Brainy Quote).


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