THEY AIN'T HEAVY, THEY'RE OUR BROTHERS
by Marylaine Block
I've been thinking lately about a problem with our profession's democratic commitment to providing excellent service to every member of our community: this national goal can only be carried out by individual libraries, many of which are critically underfunded. Small town and rural libraries in particular must compete with other public services for limited funds drawn from a limited tax base of small or widely dispersed populations.
Which means that the quality of library service Americans get depends almost entirely on where they happen to live.
There are, of course, some agencies that supplement the funding for these libraries, including state libraries, library consortia, the Gates Foundation, and the federal e-rate program. But the e-rate program comes with strings attached: its recipients have no choice but to abide by every idea - good, bad or stupid beyond belief - that Congress comes up with about internet access in libraries.
It may be that left to their own devices, these library directors would choose to place limits on young people's access to various kinds of internet sites and services, in accordance with state and local laws or their own perceptions of community sentiment.
It may be that they would not.
But I do agree with ALA that that is where the decision should be made: within the community, by a library director in tune with its needs. The decision should not be the result of congressional extortion.
So my question is: can we as a profession provide an alternative funding source for internet connectivity for small, underfunded libraries?
ALA already maintains one foundation to support the freedom to read. I wonder whether ALA might extend that foundation's mission to support the freedom to access internet services and information? Or whether ALA might create a separate foundation to provide support to small libraries, either directly or through grants to state libraries?
Why should this matter to the rest of us? To libraries that have adequate (though not lavish) funding? To libraries whose programs and services are well-used and valued?
I think it matters because the very concept of a public library is under attack. By people who don't like to pay taxes. By people who think the internet provides all the answers anybody needs for free. By people who don't much care that not everybody has their own computer and internet access.
By people who think it's simply irrelevant - a musty, dusty place with nothing but old books and old ladies.
The more libraries that defy those characterizations, the better for all libraries, the better for the public, and the better for the ideal that no matter where you live, you are entitled to quality library service. Under these circumstances, it's in our professional interest to help even the smallest libraries provide excellent service.
I would be willing to contribute to such a foundation. Would you? Is this something we should ask ALA to do?
* * * * *
Commons are a form of social lubrication. Some things must be free for the rest of life to function smoothly. That includes the market. Free sidewalks in a city bring customers to the merchant's door. Free information in the library feeds invention that becomes new enterprise. The commons feeds the market and the market feeds the commons; without the merchants, the sidewalks would be empty, as Wall Street used to be on week-ends before the opening of the South Street Seaport nearby. Pure symbiosis.
Jonathan Rowe. "Sidewalks of the Mind." On the Commons, December 2, 2004 http://onthecommons.org/node/457
* * *
You are welcome to copy and forward any of my own articles (but not those by my guest writers) for noncommercial purposes as long as you credit ExLibris and cite the permanent URL for the article. Please do NOT copy and post my articles to your own web sites, however. Instead, please copy a brief excerpt and link to the URL for the remainder of the article.
Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999-2006.
[Publishers may license the content for a reasonable fee.]