A Letter from America XV: The Decline of Local Libraries, and Buying the Pieces (June)

From the Antiquarian Book Review

Once upon a time, the town library was the pride and glory of the United States. A nation committed to universal education strove to provide free centers of knowledge which would cater to the aspiring youth of the nation. The notion that anyone who sought to educate themselves would get ahead has been central to this country’s personal myth from the beginning. Andrew Carnegie, the hard-fisted steel mogul turned philanthropist, used much of his vast fortune to build public libraries, and erected over a thousand across the United States in the early 20th century. Often they are the most impressive structures in the towns they grace; massive Grecian temples of learning with marble steps, bronze doors, and mottoes over the door. They are pretty much all still there today, since they are too solidly built to fall down. Now, however, they often have fewer books than they used to.

The public library is in crisis in this country. Often the most vulnerable line item in ever-tighter budgets, they have suffered cut after cut in support, while the range of services expected of them has grown. No one can run a meaningful information center today without computer stations, but these are expensive to install and maintain, much less police. One of the hot-button political issues in this country is the access to pornography through public library sites, just the kind of think that gets the civil libertarians and conservatives on our inane talk shows screaming at each other.

Frankly, I don’t spend a lot of time hanging out in public libraries. I have a lot of books of my own (and I’m trying to read them all so I can say "yes’ when people ask me if I have) and I always know where to buy more. In fact, when I do go to a public library it’s usually because I am hoping to buy ones they are getting rid of. Recently I went on such a trip to a medium-sized city somewhere in New England, where the librarians were hoping to dispose of some thousands of linear feet of books.

Let’s not get pious about libraries tossing out books – excuse me, I mean deaccessioning – so much nicer sounding, don’t you think? For many libraries it’s a good idea. Certainly no one was going to be looking at them in this particular library. The good material will be happily snapped up in our modern book-starved market, and the real junk, (of which there was plenty) will either filter through the used book world or be dumpstered by the realistic bookseller who bought the whole lot. The net result will be a better disposition of the book resources of the world and a hard-earned profit for the bookseller, who can retire to nurse his strained lower back at the nearest bar (which in this case was- I kid you not – an Irish pub called Tipsy McStaggers).

We pulled up in front of the library mid-morning. A vast edifice, occupying a full city block, it was solid granite from the foot of the steps to the classic Grecian egg and dart pattern under the eves. We went up the steps to doors better suited to the U.S. Treasury, which we discovered locked; the library was now closed some mornings because of cutbacks. But we had an appointment, and after much banging were admitted into a two-story marble lobby. The first sign that all was not well was a prominent sign which proclaimed that it was illegal to look lewdly at other readers, or assault them sexually or otherwise, or bathe in the bathrooms, or spend more than ten minutes locked in a bathroom, or sleep in sleeping bags in the reading room, or try to hide in the stacks at closing…the list went on and on. Plainly the patrons were a feisty crew.

After several sweaty hours of inhaling powdered leather and dust, we emerged from the stacks coughing like a crew of tubercular coolies. I almost reached the legal bathroom limit washing my hands. By this time the library was open for regular business, and on emerging I had a chance to survey the patrons. They were certainly not of an antiquarian turn (although one of the milder looking ones closely resembled a famous book scout known to have experimented with controlled substances). Clearly, the largest part of those present were there mainly to get warm. If they could bathe or get in a lewd look or two at the same time, so much the better. The next segment consisted of persons who had just gotten out of, or were about to go back to, prison. Several others had started the day at Tipsy McStaggers. I don’t imagine the younger set at the computer terminals were interested mainly in pornography; I know it. A few geezers and kids seemed to be using the library in an old-fashioned way, but I would not have bet on them when the rule on assaults went by the boards.

All in all, I found the whole experience quite depressing (and even more so after we underbid on the books for sale). The grand library stood as imposing as ever, a monument to what Learning and Culture and Advancement meant a century ago. The librarians, I think, were doing their best with what they had to make the library useful to the citizens. But, through the failures of the rest of government to educate or deal with the homeless and unemployment, they found themselves more a form of Social Services than a center of learning. I wish it were not so, but I came away feeling the town library in the United States is a dying institution.

– William S. Reese