Public libraries survive despite threats

I love libraries. They are truly egalitarian spaces that are open to everyone and enables anyone free access to information, be it in the form of books, newspapers, magazines, or the internet. I have never met a librarian who did not seem genuinely pleased to be asked to help me find out something or seek out a resource. They are welcoming spaces. The Peterborough Town Library in New Hampshire, established in 1833, is reported to be the first documented free, public library in the world, though claims of being the ‘first’ for anything are always ripe for challenge.

One thing to note is that the modern library is far more than a repository for books. It also provides classes, workshops, internet access, resume and tax help, and serves as a meeting space for community events, as community gathering places, and so forth

“In a library, no one is asked to pay anything simply to sit. For those with few resources besides time, this is a godsend. Libraries are unofficial playgrounds for low-income families on rainy days, homeless shelters in cold months, reprieves from broken homes for grade-school-age children. They are the last bastions of quiet and calm where nothing is asked of one but to exist. Many arguments have been made about how the library is an outdated institution offering outdated services—that in the 21st century, how-to books on building sheds and daily newspaper copies are obsolete and the funding used for libraries ought to be reallocated to other programs. I can only assume that those who make such arguments are people who have always been comfortable with the expenditures it takes to move through the world, whose presence has never been questioned. For those people, libraries can be about books. But not everyone has the luxury of seeing past the space.”

I was pleased to read that rather than being a place that only older people use, it is the younger generation that frequent them the most.

As American generations go, millennials love the public library most of all. A Pew Research Center analysis released in 2017 showed millennials use public libraries more than other age groups.

Pelayo-Lozada said this love affair is likely due to the fact that millennials as a generation were entering adulthood “during a recession and through multiple life-changing world events.”

“Millennials understand the importance of free and equitable access to information as well as the need to support those institutions that provide it,” she said. “From a practical standpoint, as pay increases do not match living expense increases, access to the public library allows millennials to enjoy culture and participate in education and learning at no cost, helping to alleviate some of the financial pressures they may be experiencing.”

Many libraries have, as part of their mission to expand access, stopped charging late fees for materials.

Along with public schools, public libraries are a bedrock of a free and democratic society. So it was concerning that there have been recent assaults on both those institutions, especially from those people who are angered by the fact that they allow people, including younger people, access to all manner of diverse materials. This has aroused the ire of those members of the community who feel that these institutions are ‘corrupting’ the minds of children by providing them access to materials that some adults do not approve of, especially of course, materials relating to gender and sexuality. These groups seek to privatize these institutions by cutting off public funding, thinking that this will give conservative voices greater control over what is available.

These people are the minority but they are loud and angry and such people tend to get media attention. It. will be up to the silent members of each community to step up and defend public libraries from these assaults.


  1. flex says

    My mother just left the board of the Ypsilanti District Library, and they removed the late fees some time ago.

    According to her, removing the late fees does two things;

    1. Encourages people to return the books. Because even if they are overdue they are not penalized so they are willing to take them back. I understand they have less books lost since they started this policy.
    2. Encourages people to continue to use the library. Because some people will stop going to the library if they have overdue books out of a feeling of guilt. They think the librarians will not only refuse to them check out any more books unless they return the ones they have previously checked out, but will also remember who they are and give them a nasty look for daring to come back to the library when they have overdue books. Librarians can have good eyes, and they do have good memories, but I think most people are safe from being recognized as having an overdue book from even the most eagle-eyed librarian.

    So removing the late fees isn’t just to expand access, it also encourages people to return books and continue to use the library.

  2. mnb0 says

    “I have never met a librarian …..”
    This very well might be worldwide. In Suriname and in The Netherlands it’s the same. That libraries are threatened in the USA is very, very worrying.

  3. lochaber says

    I’ve worked at a handful of libraries, both public and academic, and am quite fond of them as an institution.

    Unfortunately, I’m not sure how much longer they will last if today’s political climate keeps up. I distinctly remember one city manager (who’s salary was something like a 1/4 million a year…) being openly disdainful of public libraries, stating he didn’t understand their purpose, as it’s so easy to just download a book onto his kindle… If I remember right, Police and Fire Department took up close to ~70% of the city’s budget at the time, compared to the library’s paltry 3%. And the library was facing budget cuts under the excuse of an underfunded police force. 🙁

    On a better note, most of the public library systems around here have switched away from fines as well. I haven’t studied it or anything, but the more casual reasoning as I understand it, is that fines don’t work as intended (motivation to return books on time), and disproportionately hurt/restrict poor people, who need the library’s services the most. And the fines are so small compared to cost of operation, that they aren’t even within an order of magnitude of a rounding error, so there isn’t even any noticeable revenue loss from eliminating fines.

    Even now that I can afford to buy the books that I read, I still prefer to get them from the public library, if nothing else because it’s such a readily available resource, and because I live in a rather small studio apartment, and don’t have the space to fill up with all the books I ever have or ever will read.

  4. friedfish2718 says

    “Many libraries have, as part of their mission to expand access, stopped charging late fees for materials.”
    Bad idea. Stopping late fees encourages theft. Being honest, being responsible, being disciplined cost nothing. Being honest, being responsible, being disciplined is accessible to all, even the poorest (financially) of the poor. Commentators here claim that stopping late fees make people honorable and more eager for education. Really. So much wishful thinking. Show me a comparative study of libraries with and without late fees. These days, people come to the library for the free Internet service, not for the books.
    Ideally, libraries are repositories of EVERYTHING: Newspapers, political pamphlets, Hitler’s speeches, Pornography, etc.. EVERYTHING in all media: printed, video, audio, documentation via tactile and olfactory methods, etc..
    Now, libraries come in all shapes: general, public, private, university research, primary school, specialty interest, etc..
    Question: Is a collection of Hitler’s speeches appropriate for a primary school library?
    Question: Is a collection of pornography appropriate for a primary school library?
    Question: Is a collection of transgender studies appropriate for a primary school library?
    No, refusing to have Hitler’s speeches, pornography, sex reports in a primary school library is not a violation of the First Amendment for such material is available in a general public library.
    No, refusing alcohol to an infant is not the re-imposition of Prohibition.
    No, refusing cannabis to an infant is not going against the spririt of legalizing marijuana.

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