Last week, the New York Times reported on Library Systems & Services, a private, for-profit company that an increasing number of towns are contracting to take over their local public libraries. The company pares budgets and turns a profit by, among others things, replacing long-term employees with those who will "work." In the article, CEO Frank Pezzanite mocks "this American flag, apple pie thing about libraries" and ridicules the idea that "somehow they have been put in the category of a sacred organization." The problem? Local residents seem to believe there is something all-American - and possibly sacred - about this community institution. I know where they're coming from.
Public libraries represent the best American tradition of local communities chipping in for the common good, while advancing democratic values of free inquiry and universal access.
Through our local libraries, we all contribute to a public space where anyone can access the world's outstanding literature, music, and film; popular entertainment; the fruits of human knowledge and insight; computer and internet access; resources for jobseekers and students; edifying speakers; programs that engage schoolchildren; and story hours that delight the youngest members of our community. I'm never going to check out that new Janet Evanovich novel (or, for that matter, Bill O'Reilly's latest bestseller) but I'm damn glad my tax dollars paid for it to be available on the shelves. The common resource is bigger than any of our individual tastes.
Something of that is lost when a profit-driven company turns a community institution into a source of private gain. It's not just the likelihood that public employees earning middle-class salaries will likely be turned out in favor of less experienced staff - although I've written in opposition to that as well. Rather, it's the idea, articulated by American Library Association President Robert Stevens in response to the Times article, that for-profit libraries may not "remain directly accountable to the publics they serve." Or, in the words of the late historian Tony Judt, "shifting ownership onto businessmen allows the state to relinquish moral obligations... A social service provided by a private company does not present itself as a collective good to which all citizens have a right."
The point may be subtle when we're talking about computers and books on a shelf (no matter how critical a part of democracy) but it's hard to ignore a house on fire. This morning at Think Progress, Zaid Jilani describes the situation in Obion County, Tennessee, where fire services are funded by subscription fees rather than general tax revenue. Those who pay the fees can call the fire department to save lives and extinguish blazes. For those who can't or won't shell out for the service, Jilani's headline says it all: Tennessee County's Subscription-Based Firefighters Watch As Family Home Burns Down. Maybe there's something to the "American flag, apple pie" thing about public services after all...