Off the Books

In 1731, members of a "society of mutual improvement," led by 25-year-old Benjamin Franklin, decided that if they and other men they knew pooled their modest resources to purchase books, each would have access to a larger body of volumes than they could ordinarily afford. Fifty men were quickly recruited to pay 40 shillings each, and America's first lending library, the Library Company of Philadelphia (which still exists today) was born. Soon, similar "subscription libraries" were sprouting up all over the country.

"These libraries," Franklin would write in his autobiography, "have improved the general conversation of the Americans, made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries, and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies in defense of their privileges."

At a time when members of one particular political faction are trying to claim that the legacy of the Founders belongs solely to them, it's refreshing to remember that Franklin argued that book learning was not only something to be sought after but actually contributed to the American desire for freedom. After all, "freedom" these days is supposed to be defined by anger -- the kind that involves telling your fellow man to get the hell off your lawn. But the Founders saw education (formal or otherwise) as a core component of citizenship. After all, if we are to choose the course of our country wisely, we need more than our guts. Not that you'd know it today.

There are few purer expressions of common endeavor in America than the system of public libraries that grew from Franklin's idea. Built in cities and hamlets, in places big and small, they brought knowledge of the wider world to anyone who wanted it, no matter his or her station. The idea didn't take hold immediately, however; it would be over a century after the creation of the Library Company of Philadelphia before tax-supported municipal libraries became the norm. The first was the Boston Public Library, created in 1848, and a few decades later, industrialist Andrew Carnegie began paying for the construction of library buildings, provided that each town or city that got one owned the land on which it was to be built and pledged to provide the necessary funds to maintain the library. By the time he finished, Carnegie had built 1,679 municipal libraries. Today, according to the American Library Association, there are 9,221 public libraries in America (plus 3,827 academic libraries and 99,180 school libraries).

During one of our recent snowstorms, my Internet and cable service went out, so I packed up my laptop and headed over to the library. It was bustling with people -- respectfully quiet, but not exactly whispering. I used the Wi-Fi to work on a couple of blog posts, picked up a book I had ordered a few days before (it had been at another branch, but at my request it was brought over to my branch so I could get it more easily), and grabbed a DVD to watch later that night. It was all free of charge. Of course, it wasn't really -- my neighbors and I paid for it with our taxes.

We haven't heard calls from anti-government conservatives to shut down public libraries -- no doubt because most people use them and like them (in the 2008 General Social Survey, 64 percent of American adults said they had visited a public library in the previous year, and over half of those said they visited more than five times). It's one thing to rail against taxes and say that government spending ought to be slashed, but it's another thing to say that kids shouldn't be able to go to the library to check out books, just like all of us did when we were young and so many of us continue to do as adults. Even as just about everything the library provides is available in some form elsewhere, few people like the idea that their community ought to be without a library.

In fact, demand for what libraries provide has increased at the same time that lowered tax revenues have meant cutbacks in state and local services. Almost all of the funding for public libraries comes from state and local governments. In 2008, the most recent year for which data are available, 83 percent of public libraries' funds came from cities and counties, with less than one-half of 1 percent of their funding coming from the federal government.

Libraries may enjoy some limited measure of protection from the budget ax, because they're still considered a benefit we all can enjoy -- as opposed to many kinds of government spending, which can be dismissed as taking "our" money to give to "them," some allegedly unworthy group like the poor -- and because for so many people, libraries are associated with children. Any politician contemplating serious cutbacks to libraries surely contemplates attack mailers with pictures of sad children saying, "Why did you take away our library, Councilman?" It's a version of the problem Republicans are facing in Washington: "Cutting spending" sounds good in the abstract, but not when you're taking away something concrete on which people rely.

Libraries are very concrete, and those hit hardest by the recession have turned to the library for assistance. If you haven't been to a public library in the last couple of years but went into one tomorrow, you'd probably find it more crowded than you remember. More people are using the library's services, particularly free access to computers and the Internet. Your neighbors are as likely to be there polishing their résumés and searching for jobs as checking out books. According to a 2010 ALA report,"More than 71 percent of public libraries provide their community's only free public access to computers and the Internet." So if you're one of the millions of people looking for work, and you can't afford your own connection (and maybe you don't have a laptop to take down to Starbucks), the library provides essential services you can't get anywhere else -- at least not for free.

For all we know, in 20 or 30 years, large publishers will no longer be stacking paper pages together between pieces of cardboard, and the "book" as we know it will become something produced only by small companies with a nostalgic bent, like vinyl records are today. Every long-form publication past and present will be digitized, and we will wonder what to do with all those heavy stacks of paper and dust in our thousands of libraries. But even if that future comes to pass, the libraries will still be there to serve whatever needs their communities have. At least we should hope so.

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