Knowledge for Sale

Are America’s public libraries on the verge of losing their way?

Before joining the Utne staff in 1999, Chris Dodge worked for 19 years in a suburban Minneapolis library system, helping the activist librarian Sandy Berman reinvent the art of cataloging. Long before search engines swept the Web, Berman and his team created a network for searching the system with plain words and phrases, not arcane jargon. Today, that innovative system has been dismantled — a symbol, Dodge argues, of wider trends that are transforming public libraries across the country. Are we on the verge of losing a cultural treasure? Dodge finds reason for both concern and hope. — The Editors

Imagine a social space that’s designed for individual enlightenment, a “people’s university” where all can read and learn. A haven from commerce where everyone can conduct research or enjoy the arts. A place for children to escape their family bonds just long enough to glimpse a broader world. A home away from home for those curious about ideas and passionate about knowledge.

Such is the American public library at its best. And who doesn’t love a library, at least in concept? In a land where private ownership is the rule, libraries lend items and offer help for free. Historically, they’ve provided things to be shared, not consumed and thrown away. Good libraries are deeply conservative in that they guard and archive the culture’s diverse wisdom and beauty, its vast oddities and amusements. But they’re also radical bastions of mutual aid. In a “knowledge economy” where information carries an ever-steeper price, where the rich get wealthier and the poor have less, libraries are one of the few ways still available for many to educate themselves — ideally, an American right.

By some measures, these wellsprings of the democratic spirit have never been more popular. According to the American Library Association (ALA), public library visits have risen from 500 million in 1990 to about 1.2 billion a year. Reference librarians now answer more than 7 million questions a week. And as the ALA likes to note, there are more public libraries in the United States — 16,421, counting all branches — than there are McDonald’s restaurants.

But lurking in that comparison is a hint that all is not well with libraries. In fact, the same forces that have turned the United States into a fast-food nation could soon drive the traditional American library out of existence. In a society where everyone’s basic needs for health care, housing, education, clean air and water, meaningful work, creative expression, and open space are not met, the historical model of the public library, open to all, is under siege. Critics say it’s a crisis that mirrors a larger one rooted in the failures of capitalism and perhaps democracy itself.

Though tax-supported public libraries first appeared in the United States in the mid-19th century, their spread began decades later, thanks to industrial magnate Andrew Carnegie. After working his way from bobbin boy at a textile mill to owner of the world’s largest steel company, Carnegie saw libraries as a way to help self-motivated individuals benefit society by bettering themselves. For 30 years following 1886, his vast wealth funded the building of nearly 1,700 libraries in more than 1,400 American cities and towns. To get a Carnegie grant, a community first had to show the need for a library, provide a site, and agree to support the library with annual taxes totaling 10 percent of the grant.

Libraries still do what they did in Carnegie’s day, at least in principle. In the words of ALA president Michael Gorman, their mission is “to select, acquire, give access to, and preserve the records of human civilization and to provide instruction and assistance in the use of those records.” In the view of scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of The Anarchist in the Library (Basic Books, 2004), “a library is a temple to the antielitist notion that knowledge should be cheap if not free.” How many inventors, artists, farmers, healers, bus drivers, teachers, and writers have been nurtured in public libraries, made important discoveries there, or simply survived, thanks to these welcoming spaces? More important, how many will in the future?

The question arises because libraries have entered an era of change, evidenced most dramatically by widespread cutbacks and closings. In Salinas, California, birthplace of John Steinbeck, a funding shortfall nearly closed the city’s three libraries this spring, including the branches named after the writer and the labor activist Cesar Chavez. After a national outcry, a fund-raising campaign kept the libraries open at a reduced level of service. Earlier this year, Philadelphia’s library director ordered 20 of 49 branches turned into so-called “express libraries” that would be open only in the afternoons and be staffed by nonlibrarians, a move accompanied by layoffs. Responding to the librarians’ union, a judge stopped the partially completed process at least until July 1. Other such crises are springing up from coast to coast.

Can libraries muster the political support they need to be funded adequately? Ralph Nader has called for federal library help, noting “an aircraft carrier currently costs about $4 billion, while libraries currently receive about $110 million yearly.” One obstacle, writes library advocate Ed D’Angelo (, is that policy makers increasingly view public libraries as “an inessential social service for the unemployed, or even as frivolous entertainment.”

Local citizens, meanwhile, have voted to build new urban showcase libraries, structures that local leaders hope will revitalize downtown areas. The spectacular new Seattle Public Library designed by, among others, the firm of renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, is one example. Despite critical raves, the building seems made to awe and befuddle rather than function smoothly as a house of knowledge. Escalators go to the top floor but don’t return from there, stairs are for emergency use only, and just three elevators serve 11 stories and a basement parking garage (costing as much as four dollars an hour). A bright and glassy new library in Salt Lake City has a mall-like foyer lined with shops selling coffee, sandwiches, and gifts. In Minneapolis a new central library with a “green roof” is scheduled to open next year, following recent layoffs and reduced service at the branches. A number of other cities have new trophy libraries of their own.

One concern is that, in the name of giving people what they want, the new libraries of the future will be closer in spirit to amusement complexes — centers offering corporate-sponsored “edutainment” spectacles and tiered services to a paying clientele. In fact, some administrators have already embraced library partnerships with Starbucks, McDonald’s, and other companies as “creative” ways to make up public funding shortfalls. This trend should surprise no one. Libraries are increasingly modeled on big business and directed not by librarians but by executives who are apt to have read more management books than literature.

The local effects are wide ranging. Along with a growing corporate presence, patrons might find more copies of the latest hyped technothrillers and fewer scholarly journals (canceled to offset costs). Another budget-balancing tactic is to offer fee-based research. In Minneapolis, the public library’s INFORM service can cost as much as $90 an hour. Administrators have begun to outsource every chore from cataloging to book selection. As in the private sector, local autonomy is becoming a thing of the past. With tax revenues dwindling, the economic pressure is real, but eventually a library run like a big-box store will carry big-box inventory on its shelves.

Under the current tyranny of the majority, libraries can’t be accused of catering to the few; but they’re not for everyone either. Today, libraries are for some. At Kansas City (Missouri) Public Library’s new central facility last year, 33 posted “customer behavior expectations” were clearly geared toward keeping homeless people out. (“Personal belongings must . . . not be too large to fit under one library chair.”) In Denver a reporter noted that branch libraries in seven low-income communities were open 30 percent fewer hours than libraries serving more affluent areas. Ironically, it isn’t just the underclass that gets short-changed when libraries cater so single-mindedly to the middle class. Independent scholars, young dreamers, and tomorrow’s world changers have always shared the library with the unwashed and the forgotten, and all may be poorly served by recent changes.

Here’s why: Too frequently, the trend toward standardization leads to similarly bland collections across the continent. Investors and travelers may find what they need, but where are the street newspapers, pamphlets about squatting and tenants’ rights, and titles like Dwelling Portably about how to live out of a car? The stacks burgeon with books on how to manage businesses, but there’s far less about how to organize a union or cope with being a rank-and-file employee. Ask young people about libraries. Do they expect to find recordings by indie bands or periodicals like Maximumrocknroll, Punk Planet, Venus, or Razorcake? Ask new immigrants. Can they find recorded music or community papers in their languages? Ask Neo-Pagans. Can they read Reclaiming Quarterly, PanGaia, and newWitch?

True, public libraries have always acted as cultural gatekeepers. In her book Purifying America (University of Illinois Press, 1997), Alison Parker describes the ALA’s initial role as “guardians of public morals” in the decades after its founding in 1876. Many librarians at the time scorned popular novels for their morbid influence on readers. To some degree, libraries still function as guardians of public ideology, but they’re less likely to be the ones defining what that ideology is. The market and its values now largely determine what the masses read and hear.

Libraries now carry all sorts of popular media, including graphic novels, comics, and popular music. But because librarians tend to purchase whatever gets widely reviewed, their collections bulge with mainstream fare — works produced by the handful of giant conglomerates that own the big publishing houses and, in fact, dominate global media. The result: Books and items from other sources, especially local ones, get overlooked. They’re rendered invisible by the ways that materials are ordered and catalogued in the country’s ever more centralized, standardized library system.

Another form of de facto censorship can be traced to the computer, a machine that’s usually celebrated for letting knowledge free. As more people come to libraries for Internet access, more money goes to buying new workstations, often at the expense of magazines and books. Many patrons find it hard to believe that the best information is not always on the Web, librarians say, or that search engines like Google can actually perpetuate errors by ranking results by the number of hits. Meanwhile, other reference sources gather dust.

The rise of digital storage has created its own problems. Electronic documents created from scanned texts are often rife with mistakes caused by failures in optical character recognition. The edition of Thoreau’s essay “Life Without Principle” converts “scared” into “seared,” “honest” into “holiest,” and “bridge” into “bride,” to name but a few howlers. After generations of scholarly effort to fix corrupted literary texts, the e-book era could delete those gains with a mouse click.

Last December, Google announced a plan with five major libraries to scan their holdings page by page. As noted by Wade Roush in Technology Review (May 2005), the project could have unforeseen consequences. “Considering the limited life span of each new data format or electronic storage medium (have you used a floppy disk lately?), keeping digital materials alive for future generations will, ironically, be much more costly and complicated than simply leaving a paper book on a library shelf,” he writes. Another concern is that Google will eventually charge access fees or couple the works with ads. Digital storage could make rare texts more widely available, but they’re also more easily privatized and put up for sale.

Siva Vaidhyanathan writes that libraries are under pressure to conform to “pay-per-view” models. “Imagine this,” he says: “An electronic journal is streamed into a library. A library never has it on its shelf, never owns a paper copy, can’t archive it for posterity. Its patrons can access the material, and maybe print it, maybe not.” And the purchased material could be lost if the subscription expires or the provider goes out of business. That’s not a good model for a library, he asserts. “You might as well be sitting at a computer terminal in a copy shop.”

As Nicholson Baker explains in his book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (Random House, 2001), some libraries have begun tossing old books and newspapers (or selling them to collectors). Others are trying, vainly, to bring order to Internet use, devoting more and more time to cataloging and “selecting” Web sites. Many librarians are now in effect e-librarians, providing reference service via e-mail, aiding computer users, and tapping into subscription databases for everything from digitized classical music to maps.

As libraries go digital, reduce hours, and lay off staff, their relationship with patrons will have to change. In theory at least, the USA Patriot Act, which opened up library records to government scrutiny after 9/11, will bring its own chill, turning library workers into surrogate federal agents. Dissident librarians are said to have shredded files, deleted computer logs, and searched for ways around the law’s provision that forbids explicitly telling “persons of interest” that investigators have paid a call. But grudgingly or otherwise, most of their peers have adapted to the new climate. What’s more, some critics warn that library schools are producing new librarians with no cultural memory, technically savvy but oriented more toward commerce than to the library’s historic role.

Should librarians be fighting back or adapting to the new status quo? It’s worth noting that few professions define themselves in more activist terms. According to the American Library Association, librarians are “proactive professionals responsible for ensuring the free flow of information and ideas,” working to “meet the challenges of social, economic, and environmental change.” The ALA encourages its 64,000 or so members to recognize the contributions they can make in “ameliorating or solving the critical problems of society.” In addition to public libraries, there are more than 90,000 school, 3,500 academic, and 1,250 government libraries, and nearly 10,000 special libraries dedicated to a particular activity, company, or field. If librarians took their charter seriously, their influence could be profound. But that’s easier said than done.

If you search the shared library database WorldCat by subject for “menstrual cramps,” you turn up a single German title: Untersuchungen Ÿber die Wirkung der Unterwassergymnastik bei Frauenleiden. You need to enter “dysmenorrhea” — spelled correctly — to reach the many citations that are actually germane. The stereotype is that librarians enjoy holding such search secrets and making others ask for the magic key. That’s true in some cases, but many others find pleasure in the librarian’s historic role as guide and giver. Vermont-based librarian and blogger Jessamyn West says, “I love helping people for free. I like the ‘Aha!’ moment when I’m explaining something and I see a patron understand it and get happy all at once.” The influential library cataloguer Sanford Berman puts it this way: “I cannot have information I know would be of interest to someone and not share it.”

Berman is known for turning that simple desire to share into a political act. Over more than 20 years working in the Hennepin County Library system in suburban Minneapolis, Berman and his staff created what may have been the most accessible library catalog ever. Each item was findable not only by author, title, and a general subject heading or two, but also by countless specific headings and copious notes (for keyword searching and getting a sense of a work). They also added alternate title entries, so users could enter partial or mistakenly remembered titles.

Tapping into a system stripped of academic obscurity and arcane biases, users could find materials by typing in things like “new baby in family,” “moving to a new neighborhood,” “fear of freedom,” “eco-fiction,” “Native American holocaust,” “restaurant cookbooks,” and “road novels,” among many other terms. The result was a living, intuitive search engine — an intricate, human-made network of cross-references, a kind of collective art form. (I’m biased, being one of the “Sandynistas” who helped Berman assemble it.)

In 1999 the library reassigned Berman and he retired under protest. Three years later, officials quietly removed access to thousands of “nonstandard” subject and genre headings from the library’s catalog records, unraveling the intellectual work of decades. The decision is framed as part of an effort to make the library’s electronic links compatible with other institutions’ catalogs, but some would argue that a lot of user-friendly flexibility was lost in the process. It’s hard not to see Berman’s story as part of the larger trend. Librarians were once paid to make creative decisions that would help library users. Today, in the push to standardize and centralize services, that former labor of love is being reduced to data entry.

Nevertheless, good things are happening at libraries as well. In Hennepin County, for instance, the libraries now offer free classes in online genealogical research and helping seniors and Spanish speakers use the Internet. There are also programs for incarcerated adults and youth. Across the country, libraries are genuinely struggling to define their new place in a changing society, even as Americans begin to speak out against the closures, funding cuts, and other developments that threaten their local treasures.

Meanwhile, many individual librarians continue to serve as professional altruists, often despite in-house pressures to do otherwise. They read and recommend books, quietly resisting a culture that seems to value entertainment more than wisdom. As the public library system struggles to find its way, it may be the librarians who will help it survive without losing its rich heritage and stores of printed knowledge. The light by which they read — and that they themselves provide — may have dimmed, but it’s not out. With support from library users, their love of knowledge will continue to burn for the generations who will inherit it.

What You Can Do
How to Take Action at the Library

  • Recommend items you’d like your library to acquire. Provide as much ordering information as you can: author, title, publisher, music label, and, ideally, even reviews.
  • If you find a helpful, responsive librarian, go back to that person.
  • Contact elected officials about library funding and policies. For suggestions, visit the American Library Association’s “Issues & Advocacy” area at:
  • Support the work of ALA’s Hunger, Homelessness, & Poverty Task Force:
  • Join the Campaign for Reader Privacy:
  • Monitor librarian blogs such as:
  • Read Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles (Norton, 2003), a Harvard librarian’s look at the library’s enduring role in human affairs.

Chris Dodge, an essayist and poet, is the Utne librarian.

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