Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2007 Issue

Libraries: Dinosaurs of the Modern Era


In the referendum libraries finished second

By Bruce McKinney

Libraries in America are a hot topic these days, deer in the headlights of both cost cutters and the next generation of technologists. They are easy prey. Twenty-seven years ago Ronald Reagan was elected President with a mandate to downsize government. He set in motion a process that continues today, the evisceration of services once taken for granted that are now endangered. Today he sleeps with the fish and hears not the wails.

In truth his is not the only name attached to this unfolding disaster. Politicians who knew or should have known better have for more than a generation opted to reduce Federal government in the name of personal empowerment. The message is easily transmitted. The electorate votes for tax cutters and against candidates who support tax increases. As a consequence national, state and local governments are now over-run with elected officials whose mandates are to dismantle American life. They succeed and institutions such as libraries fail. It turns out there is no free lunch.

What libraries provide are indirect benefits, kind of like directions to the baseball game: go one mile, turn left on Sanchez, right on Wallace at the second light. Look for the Carvel stand and turn left. The baseball field is at the end of the street. Most of what is worth doing takes time and concentration. It is not instant gratification. Rather, it requires time, experience and perspective. In other words, libraries teach patience.

Reading is an acquired skill, love of reading the lucky consequence of encountering great material when the mind is open to its possibilities: the alternative to symphonic reading Googling for answers. It saves time but loses the feeling. You can read the Gettysburg address on line. To understand Lincoln, the times, the circumstances and this speech's impact you need to read books. Google and all the other search engines combined are not enough.

So the recent decision in Jackson County, Oregon to close their libraries is disappointing at a distance and a catastrophe up close. For the county this is just reality playing out. For most of a hundred years the county received Federal timber subsidies. Recently Congress failed to reauthorize funds to prop up rural economies and responsibility then fell to local voters to approve a tax increase to keep libraries alive. By a vote of 58.3% to 41.7% the voters declined and so the libraries have closed. In doing so Jackson County becomes the nation's largest library closure. It won't be the last. We are emptying the nation's treasury and turning a caring nation into one that cares only for itself.

This is all part and parcel of the destruction and elimination of government services. We devalue teachers, defeat school budgets, stand by while strange local boards impose 16th century logic on 21st century students, close mental hospitals and build more prisons, fund weapons and wage war. We take more for ourselves and leave less for others.

We do not do these things because we close libraries. Rather we close libraries because we do these things. And we should stop.

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