I have tended to laugh when enraged Rightwing parents demand that schools and/or libraries “ban” book X or Y–in our digital age, access to that material is generally a click away. And that’s in addition to several organizations pushing back with offers to send a free copy to any kid who makes a request.
As a parent, I learned early that if you want to get a child–or especially a teenager–to read something, the most effective thing you can do is tell them they can’t.
But there are some more insidious ways to subvert American libraries, and I recently came across an article highlighting one of them.
The article began by pointing to the great value of America’s public libraries
“There aren’t many truly public places left in America,” Jennifer Howard writes in Humanities Magazine. “Most of our shared spaces require money or a certain social status to access. Malls exist to sell people things. Museums discourage loiterers. Coffee shops expect patrons to purchase a drink or snack if they want to enjoy the premises.
“One place, though, remains open to everybody,” she continues. “The public library requires nothing of its visitors: no purchases, no membership fees, no dress code. You can stay all day, and you don’t have to buy anything. You don’t need money or a library card to access a multitude of on-site resources that includes books, e-books and magazines, job-hunting assistance, computer stations, free Wi-Fi, and much more. And the library will never share or sell your personal data.”
It’s evidently the fact that libraries are “public” that most irritates the Right. The article takes an in-depth look at the private company currently pushing a privatization agenda, adding the current political assault on history, diversity, and racial justice to the purported glories of privatization.
That’s what what happened in Huntsville, Texas, where the city council voted to outsource the Huntsville library’s operations after some residents objected to a book display themed around Pride Month.
Lest you shrug and think “well, of course– it’s just Texas,” think again.
According to the article, a one-time software company called Library Systems & Services (LS&S), backed by Argosy Capital Group, a private venture firm, has doubled its size and in the past decade has taken over 17 library systems in five states. It runs over 80 branches, and is now the nation’s fifth-largest library system.
So what happens when the private sector takes over a public good–in this case, the public library?
When LS&S takes over, it receives a set fee from a local government. The corporation gets control over the collection, services, and programs. Most important, it takes over staffing. Librarians at these facilities are no longer public servants; they serve at the pleasure of LS&S. Although it has been building its portfolio since the late 1990s, LS&S has met with little competition; its CEO likes to brag that it boldly goes “where angels fear to tread,” namely, into local fights with committed activists who love their libraries and librarians. The LS&S proposal to privatize the Prince William County, Maryland, library would have achieved its promised savings by laying off 20 percent of the staff, trimming benefits, and cutting pensions. The library trustees said the proposal was “unfair to employees” and rejected it.
The American Library Association has outlined numerous issues surrounding privatization of libraries: “quality of library services, loss of local community control, governance, loss of control of tax dollars, and collection development.”
The ALA also pointed out that privatization often leads to the loss of community involvement with foundations, nonprofits, and Friends groups.
During the pandemic, local public libraries served as community hubs providing a variety of services; in addition to other services, they distributed more than 2.5 million free, at-home COVID-19 test kits. Forgive me if I don’t see a for-profit, private operator doing that–or providing the other numerous free services that our local library provides–everything from access to computers for poor kids whose homes lack them, to help with tax returns. (Somehow, I doubt these privatized libraries host Drag Queen story hours, either–and I’m sure that’s one reason proponents support them.)
Citizens depend upon their public libraries for access to information–all sorts of information, whether their neighbors approve of that information or not.
Wikipedia identifies five fundamental characteristics of public libraries: they are supported by taxes; they are governed by a board to serve the public interest; they are open to all, and every community member can access the collection; they are entirely voluntary, no one is ever forced to use the services provided and they provide library and information services services without charge.
Wikipedia says “Public libraries are considered an essential part of having an educated and literate population.” Precisely what the Right doesn’t want.