Public Libraries as Ombudsmen and Democratic Incubators

Kevin Drum sends us to this compelling posting about why we need public libraries more than ever in the digital age, and how libraries need to revise themselves to become civic centers:

We need to do something which I’ll admit is ill defined and perhaps impossible: we need to become the center of civic engagement in our communities. We’re one of the few places left in our society where a great cross-section of people regularly interact, and also one of the few places that is free and non-commercial. … We have amazing potential power, but without concerted effort I’m afraid it will be wasted. It will look better to save 10 dollars a year per person in taxes instead of funding community computer workshops, and childhood literacy programs, and community gardens. All the while we play desperate catch-up, trying to get a hold on ebooks, and liscensing out endless sub-quality software for meeting room reservations and computer sign-ups and all this other rentier software capitalism instead of developing free and open source solutions and providing small systems with the expertise to use them. Our amazing power is squandered as we cut our staff, fail to attract skilled and diverse talent, and act as a band aid to the mounting social ills caused by slash and burn governance in the name of low taxes and some nebulous idea of freedom that seems to equate with living in a good society but not paying your share for it.

Every day at my job I helped people just barely survive. Forget trying to form grass roots political activism by creating a society of computer users, forget trying to be the ‘people’s university’ and create a body of well informed citizens. Instead I helped people navigate through the degrading hoops of modern online society, fighting for scraps from the plate, and then kicking back afterwards by pretending to have a farm on Facebook (well, that is if they had any of their 2 hours left when they were done). What were we doing during the nineties? What were we doing during the boom that we’ve been left so ill served during the bust? No one seems to know. They come in to our classes and ask us if we have any ideas, and I do, but those ideas take money, and political will, and guts, and the closer I get to graduation the less and less I suspect that any of those things exist.

All this resonates with me: Strong pubic libraries can be a foundation stone of a stronger civil society and an improved public sphere. They could be a big part of what I was looking for when I wrote Building the Bottom Up From the Top Down.

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