The flailing world economy has affected everything, nothing more than the things we take for granted like public parks and libraries. The King County Library System, of which my local library is part, faces chronic budget shortfalls, though they never seem as severe as the woes experienced by Seattle Public Libraries. The rhetoric and reasoning behind cutting back at libraries always seems to focus on the idea that libraries are a luxury or that needs to be run as a business. When we talk about the efficiency of libraries, we miss the point, since libraries are more than the sum of their parts.
Facing even more severe budgetary problems, many libraries in Britain are on the block for closure. For that reason, people like author Philip Pullman are speaking out about the short-sighted nature of the closures. In a recent speech by Mr. Pullman, he said, in part:
“Itâ€™s imported the worst excesses of market fundamentalism into the one arena that used to be safe from them, the one part of our public and social life that used to be free of the commercial pressure to win or to lose, to survive or to die, which is the very essence of the religion of the market. Like all fundamentalists who get their clammy hands on the levers of political power, the market fanatics are going to kill off every humane, life-enhancing, generous, imaginative and decent corner of our public life. I think that little by little weâ€™re waking up to the truth about the market fanatics and their creed.”
“And you could go a little further back to the end of the nineteenth century and look at the ideas of â€œscientific managementâ€, as it was called, the idea of Frederick Taylor that you could get more work out of an employee by splitting up his job into tiny parts and timing how long it took to do each one, and so on â€“ the transformation of human craftsmanship into mechanical mass production.”
He also speaks about the wonders of libraries, their place in society and much more. If you spend time at your local library, you know these things and the importance of libraries and the skilled staff who work in those places. But articulating that defense to someone who sees things only in terms of dollars, who doesn’t think they should be taxed for services they don’t use (a notion that ignores the interconnected nature of society and how funding for schools has an impact on crime rates or how parks affect overall quality of life – intangibles that don’t lend themselves to line items in a budget), is a difficult proposition. The way Mr. Pullman expresses his opposition to the idea that government needs to be run like a business resonates perfectly with my thoughts on the subject.
It was at my local library when I was young that I chanced upon a copy of the script to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, complete with scenes cut for reasons of length. Perhaps not life-changing at that age, but definitely one of the more memorable finds among the cornucopia of offerings that could be found at the Vashon Public Library. And though I use computers all the time and make my living building websites, I still visit the library with my daughter almost every week. Because the internet isn’t a place and a website isn’t a book and a library isn’t a business. A library is something unique and wonderful that can’t be replaced.