Wednesday, July 25, 2018

First shot fired in war on libraries

Because the public library is a beloved government institution, socialist, egalitarian, intellectual, democratic, and beautiful, I have long expected the Right to eventually come after it. I have worked in a public library for nearly a quarter of a century and the only great surprise of those years has been how long it took for them to fire their first shot.

But this week that first shot finally came. The alt-right magazine called Forbes (sorry, I meant to say "The mainstream magazine called Forbes"- such an easy mistake to make!) dug themselves up an obscure economics professor, in a graveyard, under a full moon, at midnight, handed him a crappy old gun they used to shoot at nuns in the eighties in Central America, and sent him off to fire the first salvo.

"Amazon should replace local libraries." He wrote, and, well, that about covered it, except maybe with the idea that Starbucks, with all their handy chairs and tables, would help too. Oh, there was a scattering of wildly unresearched paragraphs from the author, who was apparently completely unacquainted with modern libraries, but they were all as logically absurd as the premise. But none of that was the point. Coherent argument was not the point of this article. The statements were not supportable, it was not reasoned, nor was it even particularly intelligible. It wasn't even trying to convince anyone. This was merely a disposable lunatic sent to fire above a crowd to see what happened.

What happened was librarians were up in arms. They were outraged. They both passionately and calmly argued. They raged and refuted the absurd points of the article. The news story, such as it was, was more about the riled librarians' response than it was about the insignificant mosquito of an article.

But that, that response of the librarians, really was the point of the article. The conscious and unconscious strategy behind it was to rile, to encourage a mob to shout it down. It was an argument made to be irresistibly easy to refute. The point was to announce the argument in a way that produced as much noise as possible and then quietly back away. I'm pretty sure I read this morning that Forbes disappeared the article from its site.

And if it worked the way it's supposed to work it planted a little seed. Whereas before there was no question about the inevitability of the public library, no discussion about whether it should exist or not, now maybe there can be an argument. There can be sides. And perhaps most importantly of all there can be a middle ground. Donald Trump himself started as an absurd joke of a candidate that no meaningful Republican would take seriously. You might know how that alt-right triumph played out. The power is never in the arguments, it's in the attention.

Whether this absurd little article worked or not in the long run remains to be seen. But its first step was successful. Traditionally the next step will be a slightly more reasoned argument, one that runs along the lines of: "Hey, that article was off the mark, and I'm not out on that lunatic fringe, but maybe it has some points. Maybe there are businesses that provide some of what the libraries provide. Maybe we still need libraries, but not as much." This might get soundly argued down too. But that won't be the point either. The point will be merely to get the arguments out there. And when the next economic crisis happens, and local economies are stretched to the breaking point, politicians and their supporters will look to the libraries with a new eye. There will be arguments available then along a spectrum, however weak they are, that they can use to erode their libraries, save money, and, if necessary, close them down.

Maybe here is what we learned and can learn from this episode:

Librarians can get loud. That's good. But maybe don't waste it on defending our libraries from cranks. How about a little offense. How about:

Libraries are the last bulwark of Democracy! They need more money, more staff, more facilities and longer hours! Double all their budgets now if you want America as you know it to survive. This is not a partisan issue. It is Conservative and Liberal. It is Revolutionary and Regressive. Libraries are good for people who love America. If you love America you will support libraries.

We need more libraries, bigger libraries, and richer libraries, all night libraries, libraries on every block, fancy, marble, 200 story tall libraries with free lunches, quality leather furniture, vast millions of volumes, and Dale Chihuly Chandeliers. 

Or our enemies will win.

Now there, there's an argument I'm interested in.


  1. "Maybe he was born in Kenya. Wouldn't that be something. I don't know. Do you know if he was born in Kenya? Maybe he was born in Kenya. Does anybody really know for certain? He certainly could have been born in Kenya. Maybe he really was born in Kenya. It's possible. Wouldn't that be something...."


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