If you want to see socialism in action, just visit your library

I just discovered this marvelous thread by a librarian on what she has learned on the job. Really, libraries are the best part of any town, and we ought to support them fully. A taste:

Free public wi-fi is a big one, especially for people who can’t afford internet access otherwise.

The thread was pre-pandemic, though, and I’d like to see an update on how the pandemic has disrupted the essential services the library performs. I know our local library was closed for a while, and has reopened with special hours for at-risk individuals and now provides curbside pickup, so you can check out books without going inside.


  1. Larry says

    Our library system in in Santa Clara county is a great one. Its pretty well funded, provides a large variety of services and resources, material reservations and inter-library transfers, and a very good website, and, most of all, has a friendly and competent staff. This all went away in March and the buildings have been closed since. Several months ago they sort of reopened the ability to check out new material via the website and pick it up when notified through walk-up service or reserved times. It works, if you know what you’re looking for, but for stack browsers, like me, its frustrating. It is, however, still better than being completely closed. There is still no word as to when they might reopen.

  2. PaulBC says

    When the pandemic hit, I figured it was finally time to pay for some premium streaming service and I chose Netflix. My kids and I wanted to watch the most recent season of Stranger Things and our library didn’t have it yet on DVD.

    It was only after doing that, that I realized what a deal we were getting with free library DVDs. Netflix has just enough TV worth watching that I haven’t canceled, but its movie selection really sucks. At the library, I can find classics like Midnight Cowboy or Cool Hand Luke. The newer MCU movies are there too. It felt like a spotty selection to me when I had nothing to compare it to, but Netflix is just a wasteland for movies, and I really don’t feel like paying for something else and being disappointed again. I have never watched that much TV (since the early 80s anyhow).

    Yeah, they have books too. I admit I have fallen out of the habit of reading the physical ones. I do sometimes, but it’s hard to stay engaged. For a little while I had a long commute and listened to audiobooks. That worked. Again, spotty but large enough selection. I rarely buy books anymore.

    The point about being a community hub is correct, but the pandemic has shut that down for now, at least around here.

  3. PaulBC says

    And you can call it socialism if you want, but I prefer the phrase “promot[ing] the general Welfare”. The US was not founded on the belief that everything was individual and transactional. It’s just good we got our library system and public schools established early, because I know for a fact that we would not be able to do it now. (And both are, I’m sure, in peril.)

  4. raven says

    Yeah, one of my favorite places was the local library.
    I read 50-100 books a year and there was no way I was going to buy all of them.
    Plus the huge selection of magazines.
    Plus the decent selection of graphic novels.

    They also had a bank of high speed internet computers, which is a major lifeline for people who don’t have high speed internet or even a permanent place to live.

    Another thing that the Covid-19 virus has taken from us.
    They do have place a hold and walk up pickup which is way better than nothing.

  5. Erp says

    Santa Clara county also. The libraries closing has made it very difficult for people who are homeless; they definitely depended on them for computer access and also for warmth in winter, cool in summer, protection from the smoke in the air, and a bathroom they can use during the day (most shelters are open only at night though some during the lockdown went to 24hr). The state and county at least has made efforts during the current epidemic to properly house more of those lacking proper shelter.
    I note that a lot of libraries have online services and I’ve been using those more.

  6. consciousness razor says

    It’s more like seeing the failures of capitalism in action, when in so many communities people have nothing else they can depend on for so many things. You wouldn’t need to put that kind of load on local libraries in a country with more socialized institutions.

    Everyone should also have some degree of free access to public university libraries. Maybe some are like that, but the way it often works is that people who aren’t associated with the school need to pay for some kind of membership (if that’s even an option) which may still come with very limited privileges.

  7. Jake Wildstrom says

    People in poverty come for a warm place to sit.

    Like so much in America, this is baggaged with a lot of complicated aspects of poverty (and to a greater or lesser degree, race as well), inasmuch as the presence of poor and especially homeless people in a library is often seen, at some administrative level, as undesirable, and library security is tasked with enforcing that order.

    In fairness, there are occasionally combative or disruptive patrons (who are not all homeless, mind you), and there are occasional abuses of the library facilities by people with severe health problems (particularly notably, drug use in the bathrooms). Those are issues which intersect with, if not being wholly determined by, patrons’ support systems and economic resources, and there’s a good argument that library personnel shouldn’t have to also be social workers. But often the policing of libraries goes beyond what is necessary to maintain the space’s utility for all — in Louisville they regularly rousted people who were sleeping at the desks, which seemed unnecessary.

  8. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    Our library’s official policy is to have security remove sleeping patrons as well, but my personal policy is to never, ever contact security about a sleeping patron. Unless they’re sleeping on one of our public use computers and even then, I try to wake them myself and let them know that if security catches them doing that, they’ll be tossed out.

    We haven’t reopened to the public yet (though we are doing sidewalk service and have both tablets and hotspots available for checkout), but it’s not our decision, it’s the mayor’s. And he keeps telling us to wait.

  9. acroyear says

    Our county (granted, relatively affluent Loudoun in VA), bought new wifi repeaters so that the public wifi can be reached outside the building, along with spreading out and adding more benches. So if you need the wifi but don’t want to risk being indoors for long, there’s a safe place to do it.

    They’re offering the areas as alternative areas to do distance learning with their schools, though obviously that is weather dependent. It already is 10 degrees cooler than average in the DC area (countered by being 20 degrees warmer out west, but there we are).

  10. microraptor says

    My county’s library system used to be quite impressive. Twenty years of consecutive budget cuts later, it was finally closed down because voters wanted a library system they didn’t have to pay for. About a year later some of the individual branches were reopened, staffed entirely by volunteers (many of whom had formerly worked at the libraries), but it’s just not the same anymore.

    Oh, and they shut the library’s wifi off at night to keep homeless people from being able to connect to it on their phones. So nice.

  11. says

    I’d add one other thing that libraries can be:

    A safe place for court-ordered post-divorce turnovers.

    There’s a specific place optimized for (some value of) kids. The facilities are more disability-friendly than anywhere else.

    And if a fight breaks out, the ambience, other patrons, and facility design both tamp things down and enable escape. As a bonus, there are professionally credentialled witnesses…

    They’re not perfect; but then, there’s no “perfect” under these circumstances. They also avoid the worse-possible location for such a changeover, and the second-worst-possible location. “Houses of worship” are the worst because inevitably one of the warring parents is going to be shunned… and sometimes both of them. “Schools” are the second worst because the ambience is inconsistent with “meeting the needs of the individual child or children as the primary objective.”

  12. whheydt says

    Re: Jaws @#13…
    If I’m not mistaken, police stations are a traditional transfer point. Not sure where those would fall on your list….especially now.

  13. hemidactylus says

    With libraries I’ve heard the concept of return on investment tossed around as far as revenue dollars versus economic value created. Beyond that neoliberal measure there is great immeasurable social value.

    Yet in the past I have heard curmudgeonly use of the p-word (privatization) bandied about too. Thankfully a dead issue so far as even hardcore conservatives love their libraries. I mean they’re not going to actually buy their Hannity or D’Souza.

    The government owns the buildings and pays the staff, but the books and movies are purchased from private “means of production” and private firms are contracted for various other purposes (landscaping and health insurance) so exactly how socialized are libraries?

  14. vimes67 says

    Libraries have spent years transforming themselves to better accommodate the needs of their communities (some more grudgingly than others). Space where people can sleep without harassment, hassle-free computer/internet access, charging stations, youth-centered space for teens, wide variety of educational opportunities in person and online with as few barriers as possible, relationship-building as an approach and an ethos for reducing racial disparities in education, income, and employment.

    Every single aspect of that got turned on its head this year. If you can help your local system identify new ways to reach marginalized people in your area, please do so! If you have an idea for how your local library can better connect people to information and resources, let them know!

    And vote for any local tax levies :).

  15. answersingenitals says

    Several years ago both the city of San Jose, CA and the U. of California at San Jose needed new libraries, so they combined resources and built one large and beautiful library accessible to both students and Santa Clara County residents. This made a great many books and other resources available that wouldn’t normally be found in a city library. It has proven to be a fantastic idea and the concern that non-students would be hogging materials that students needed for course work hasn’t happened.

    All the libraries we frequent also support the Inter Library Loan system so we can get (and have gotten) books from all over the country. Just keep track of due dates since late fees are very high.

    If you have Netflix and haven’t yet seen the documentary “My Octopus Teacher” you must check it out. It’s the best movie we have seen in many years. It might be available on other platforms.

  16. Guenter says

    I’m an academic librarian who used to lobby for libraries at the state legislature. One of the big issues I found is that everyone professes to love libraries, but getting them to commit to vote for funding is a struggle. Even in the Academy, libraries are often perceived as a cost center, and an expensive one, so the funding just doesn’t keep up with costs. Our budget last year was the same dollar amount as 2006. With electronic resources (journal databases especially) increasing at 3-5%/year, that’s effectively a cut.
    Academic libraries are also a hub on campus. It’s the only place on campus that is explicitly academic without belonging to any one department/division/school. A social scientist and a natural scientist can both come to the library and be welcome.

  17. PaulBC says


    It’s more like seeing the failures of capitalism in action

    Great point, and maybe we don’t disagree on as much as you think. Yeah, we disagree on a lot, but it still sucks that libraries do so much only because it’s all we have left in so many cases.

  18. PaulBC says

    And just think how much these dreaded collectivist institutions have done to bring Ayn Rand to the masses. Aside from the books, I imagine that generations of objectivist clubs have been “mooching” off the largesse of taxpayers to hold their meetings in library community rooms.

  19. nomdeplume says

    Republicans hate any organisation which (a) has “Public” in its name and (b) doesn’t make a profit for some rich Republican.

  20. Akira MacKenzie says

    In the age before Corona, a friend of mine ran a tabletop RPG club out of the free meeting rooms in the Madison (WI) library system. I tried to step a similar arrangement at my home town library only to discover that the rules for using the meeting room in the Waukesha Co. Library System we’re far more stringent. Evidently, I need to be a “ Non-profit civic and community organizations“ and need to prove tax-exempt status.

    I… I just wanted a place to run D&D.

  21. Akira MacKenzie says

    Oh, Madison, of course, is a still a Mecca of progressive thinking while Waukesha Co. is a Republican white flight refuge, so there’s that to take into consideration.

  22. PaulBC says


    I… I just wanted a place to run D&D.

    Couldn’t you have persuaded them you were actually running a Satanic church and therefore entitled to tax exempt status? (Different thread but…)

  23. vimes67 says

    It’s a really tough balancing act for public libraries, since some people want and/or need the quiet space and others are using it to learn and/or connect socially. Both are hugely important uses of a community space, but…kind of naturally generate some conflict :).

  24. binayaro says

    Republicans hate any organisation which (a) has “Public” in its name and (b) doesn’t make a profit for some rich Republican.