Public Libraries Are Doing Just Fine, Thank You: It's the "Public" in Public Libraries That is Threatened / Les bibliothèques publiques se portent très bien, merci : C'est le « public » dans les bibliothèques publiques qui est menacé
Public libraries have been rhetorically cast as being in crisis for decades as an outmoded, unaffordable institution in high-profile venues. However, when challenged as such, public libraries are vigorously defended, and an abundance of data on their actual popularity, usage, and value is deployed. We come to the question of why this mode of questioning persists despite the manifest value that the public places on public libraries. This article proposes a two-track answer by exploring (1) the long running context of neoliberalism and corrective to our understanding of it and (2) the status of publicness within neoliberalism. The article unpacks the concept of "public" and how it has changed and come under specific threat—informed by our more robust understanding of neoliberalism—over the last several decades. Data and arguments about public libraries and improved quality of life, community, cultural heritage, economic assistance during hard times, or their role as third places do not necessarily fall on deaf ears, but, to deploy a metaphor, those ears have been reengineered not to hear or value them.
Depuis des décennies, la bibliothèque publique est parfois présentée comme une institution en crise, dépassée et inabordable. Cependant, lorsqu'elles sont décrites ainsi, les bibliothèques publiques sont vigoureusement défendues et une abondance de données sur leur popularité, leur utilisation et leur valeur réelles sont déployées. Nous nous questionnons sur la persistance de cette remise en question malgré la valeur manifeste que le public accorde aux bibliothèques publiques. Cet article propose une réponse en deux temps en explorant (1) le contexte à long terme du néolibéralisme et notre compréhension de cet enjeu, et (2) le statut du « public » au sein du néolibéralisme. Le document décompose le concept de « public » et comment il a évolué et est devenu l'objet d'une menace spécifique—influencée par notre compréhension plus solide du néolibéralisme—au cours des dernières décennies. Les données et les arguments sur le lien entre les bibliothèques publiques et [End Page 158] l'amélioration de la qualité de vie, de la communauté, du patrimoine culturel, en tant que troisième lieu, ou aide économique en temps difficiles ne tombent pas nécessairement dans l'oreille d'un sourd, mais pour exploiter cette métaphore, ces oreilles ont été repensées pour ne pas les entendre ou les valoriser.
neoliberalism, public goods, public libraries, libraries, public libraries' support
néolibéralisme, biens publics, bibliothèques publiques, bibliothèques, soutien aux bibliothèques publiques
For quite some time now, the "crisis" of libraries has been forecast incessantly: "business as usual under circumstances that will prevail … in the future will doom libraries" was written in 1958 about the post-war information explosion (quoted in Sapp and Gilmour 2002, 557). Though the reasons cited in the predictions have changed over time, there is clear continuity in the drumbeat: "In 1970, when the idea of the death of the book first emerged," the "paperless society" predicated that technology would displace print "render[ing] both traditional libraries and librarians obsolete" (Harris, Hannah, and Harris 1998, 20, 33). This line of questioning continued throughout the decade with Frederick Lancaster asking in 1978 "if libraries and librarians will be needed" (quoted in Sapp and Gilmour 2002, 559). Then, in 1984, a blue-ribbon government panel reported that "the Information Age" had "swept around the world like a poorly forecast winter storm," catching libraries short (quoted in Buschman 2003, 4); the next year brought the "de-institutionalization" thesis—the idea that librarians were (still) too tied to the old "containers" of information and that "the concept that the library is not a place but a service" (quoted in Sapp and Gilmour 2002, 565–66). By 1998, "we have librariesonthe…vergeofextinction" (quoted in Buschman 2003, 4).
Predictions of the demise of the library profession itself—tethered as it was to an institution made redundant by technology—became routine. In 1992, the claim was that the "disappearance of the profession is … happening … through a process called marginalization" (quoted in Buschman 2003, 4). The question "are we the last generation of a profession being swept away by the rising tide of technology" was raised in 1993 (quoted in Buschman 2003, 4), and the exact same point was made again in a prominent newspaper two years later (Kent 1996, 207). In 1998, "the disappearance of human involvement in patron assistance" was contemplated (quoted in Sapp and Gilmour 2002, 27), along with traditional back-of-the-shop technical services and skills (571). This prediction ironically continues into the twenty-first century (McKenzie 2018).
And so by 2002, the "public library … [is] barely considered a part of the information revolution (quoted in Buschman 2003, 5). Even "by 1995, librarians had been bombarded with a hailstorm of predictions about their future" and were growing jaded (Sapp and Gilmour 2003, 26). But the genre (because that is what it is—a genre of discourse) of predicting the decline, dispersal, defunding, downfall, dissolution, and/or demise of public libraries continues. In a 2012 Forbes posting, Marc Bodnick (2012) stated: "I think it's pretty clear that [they] are eventually going to fade away." The genre occurred often enough the [End Page 159] executive director of the American Library Association felt the need to address the "myth [that] libraries are no longer used in an information age" and the question "can libraries even survive?" in a publication with a lot of data on the robust state of the field (Fiels 2011, 4; see also Kajberg 2013, 294–95). A follow-up article refuting Forbes's prediction at the five-year point followed (Hardy 2017).
In another vein, an assertion that public libraries are redundant and can easily be replaced by online booksellers and e-book devices (Worstall 2014) was contested (Smith 2014), but the same argument was repeated four years later in another Forbes posting (Mourdoukoutas 2018), again with responses and even a bit of a backlash (Ingraham 2018). The notion that public libraries are doing just fine shows up in the demand for their services and collections (that is, their popularity and function in communities) and for the associated usage data, but this is contrasted with their struggles for funding (see Fiels 2011; Ingraham 2018; Klinenberg 2018; Peet 2018; vanden Heuvel 2018). Something is amiss, and getting to the heart of that something can help us understand and, through understanding, formulate ways to push back at this tide. But what is that tide, what specifically are we pushing back at? The key, it is argued here, is in the shifted meaning of—and value attributed to—the idea of "public," and the key to this idea is rethinking what neoliberalism really is and what its effects are. The remainder of this article will try and provide a path through those related questions.
The tide of neoliberalism
The post-war period (from approximately the 1940s to 1980) seemingly ingrained the changes wrought by the New Deal and the Second World War—that is, the Keynesian welfare state, equality as a prominent social-political goal, and political-democratic activism in the spirit of equality and justice (the Vietnam protests and the fight for civil rights come to mind). It was certainly not a Golden Age, but it was a "comparatively fair and progressive period" in retrospect, when people "earned enough money and benefits so they could claim they were in the middle class" because big businesses "were not able to be [as] aggressive" as they previously had been (Brosio 2013, 269; see Collin and Apple 2009, 87–90 on the "Fordist Keynesian welfare state settlement"). Data bears this out. Income growth was highest in the middle class during the post-war period (Leonhardt 2017); the children of this period had a more than 90 per cent chance of earning more than their parents (Leonhardt 2016), and social data—families eating dinner together, participation in extracurricular activities, measures of social trust and two-parent families—show significantly more equality during this period (Badger 2015). The environment, however, has changed: income growth has now shifted dramatically to the very wealthy (Leonhardt 2017); the percentage of post-post-war children who can expect to earn more than their parents has fallen to 50 per cent (Leonhardt 2016); significant inequalities have occurred in every one of those same social measures of equality in the current era (Badger 2015). Put simply, the post-war era engendered a [End Page 160] counter-reaction: a move to fundamentally rethink and recast the relationship of the state to the economy, the economy to society, and, thus, the footing of civil society institutions like schools and libraries (among many) that had been previously established.
This rethinking was the origin of neoliberalism, which has come to dominate for 40 years now (from about 1980 onwards): a loose set of economic and market principles infused into civil and social arrangements (schools, universities, and libraries)—areas of society where they had not been seen previously. At its core, neoliberalism is the wish to remove barriers in the path of the progress of the market and the ethos of consumerism—as the social and political arrangements of the Keynsian welfare state supposedly did. The long-running effects of the neoliberal ethos are not difficult to detect now: in an era of uncertainty and economic hardship, "even [when] it may seem to be going well within the library's four walls … there is [always a sense of] risk" about the institution (Kajberg 2013, 295). Public libraries must now quantify their value in economic terms—a difficult task (Jaeger et al. 2011), which implicitly imposes a market structure on them with specific outcomes (Buschman 2003, 2012; Clarke et al. 2007; McMenemy 2009; Greene and McMenemy 2012):
• the commodification of librarianship in the adoption of marketing techniques and principles to the field—the bookstore and coffee shop model;
• libraries as markets and libraries helping to create/stabilize/shore up markets—for example, social capital and area real estate;
• entrepreneurial management culture;
• public choice ideology and the consumption model of citizenship in delivering and receiving services and service coproduction;
• an entrepreneurial grant and/or fundraising culture and internal competition for funds ("intrapreneurialism") in libraries; and
• a competitive ranking culture—for example Library Journal's "America's Star Libraries" list (Lance 2017).
Arguably, a wing of LIS scholarship has fully absorbed this perspective and larger analyses of neoliberalism. For instance, scholarship like that produced by Budd and Harloe (2017–18) fully integrates an analysis of LIS with the literature on educational neoliberalism, and Greene and McMenemy (2012) fully integrate their work with the neoliberal critiques of the new public management and the citizen consumer. Buschman (2012) deploys both of these methods. All of them reveal the primary influence of Harvey's (2007) analysis of neoliberalism. But there is something both satisfying and unsatisfying about identifying the juggernaut of neoliberalism and the consequent buffeting of public librarianship. To oversimplify the matter, public libraries are the blameless victims of global political-economic-social shifts, on the one hand, and, to use a variety of metaphors, are dog-paddling to stay afloat, are the little engines that could, which valiantly keep on serving their communities, or are the forever misunderstood-but-never-theless-essential/valuable function of their communities (emotionally satisfying). On the other hand, we want to do something about this state of affairs, and sitting [End Page 161] back and blaming the state of the world does not feel quite right—as if we are not fulfilling our role (the emotionally unsatisfying). There are two paths through this tension that come together. The first is to think through the different meanings of "public" in public libraries instead of our usual tendency to focus on the "libraries" part (Wiegand 2015). This helps to avoid expressing our concerns parochially instead of examining them in a broader context. The second is to think alongside Harvey's critique of neoliberalism (the broader context), addressing its shortcomings, and then bring the two strands together.
"Public": its meanings
Like "democracy," "public" can mean many different things, and the differences are often stark. Without going too far down a rabbit hole, a mapping of some these meanings is a productive exercise to build towards the particular meaning of "public" that is characteristic of public libraries. The first distinction is the one between public and private. It is problematic because of the association of "the private sphere with 'women' and the public sphere with 'men' … represent[ing] the private as inferior to the public," the one being associated with hearth, home, care, and children and the other associated with reason, action, and professional (public) life (Roessler 2006, 696). Handled carefully, the distinction remains useful by designating non-publicness or privacy/the private. In this reading, non-publicness or privacy designates a situation where things are not known or discussed with others who are not in one's trust or of one's choosing, retaining some autonomy over information and decisions of what is known, if it is ever to be known, when it is known, and how and where it is known—the decision and process of "a private reality 'going public'" (Marty 1999, 3). This distinction almost always stands in the background of any sense of "public" (Clarke 2004, 28). The second distinction is the "irreducible kernel of the social to publicness: it is something shared" among people, not the mere aggregation of individuals and their consumer or market choices as in a market or the gathering of an audience (Buschman 2017b, 56). This sociable-something-shared brings us to a third distinction. "A public"—which is always a portion of "the public"—stands in contrast to a community with its shared values or living arrangements and is also not just a crowd or mob. "A public" is, to some extent, a "discursive arena" that is created where discussion/takes place over common concerns over time, "in pursuit of influence" (Emirbayer and Sheller 1998, 738–39; Barbieri 2014; Buschman 2017b). Put another way, this meaning of "public" is political in nature and closely affiliated with democracy, and, of course, the thing held in common most in contemporary terms is that which we pay for in common in the aggregate by taxation through democratic government: schools, libraries, roads, parks, fire and police departments, the military, and so on.
This takes a step much closer to the purposes here, and it is the cumulative background to Ingraham's (2015, 148) comment that
for all its familiarity, the idea of a "public library" is deceptively complex. In their current iteration, [they] have … five characteristics: They are (1) supported by taxes, (2) [End Page 162] governed to serve the public interest, (3) open to anyone and with equal access to all, (4) voluntary institutions whose use is not mandated, and (5) free of cost. … [These] characteristics … help to explain what makes a library public. … [Q]uestions about the nature of public libraries are rhetorically inseparable from questions about the nature of their public character.
Open, equal, voluntary and accessible, tax supported and free, and governed in the public interest—all of these terms imply our sense of "public" built step by step here: sociable, a coming together around a common interest (the shared resource of a community's public library), the democratic decision to levy a tax to found/support one, and under what conditions—if any—it is made available to people. It is, in short, both a symptom and a product of political, collective, and democratic reasoning and decision making, something people do for themselves (Buschman 2012, 2017b; Ingraham 2019). At the time of the founding of public libraries, "to extract funds from the taxpayers to build and maintain such an institution, a serious social purpose, at least as serious as that of the public schools, had to be demonstrated," but, in the end, public libraries simply became "open-ended democratic institutions that can lend themselves to whatever purposes their users may have in mind" (Dain 1975, 263, 266; Wiegand 2015).
How the "public" in public libraries is threatened (by neoliberalism)
We can already see a simple collision of conflicting purposes: between public choice ideology and a consumption model of citizenship in delivery and receipt of services (neoliberalism) and public libraries' collective and democratic purposes and means of reasoning and decision making through institutions and taxation (the meaning of "public" in public libraries). But, so far, this is merely two opposing ideas. How has one come to dominate? It is here that thinking alongside Harvey is needed. While there are certainly Harvey-like elements of power in that process, influencing elections and politicians, capturing the processes by which policies are made, and promulgating and disseminating ideas to justify each of the preceding events fuelled by media, wealth, and the interests that serve them (Buschman 2012), it is more than that. Neoliberalism is, after all, "neo"—it is not merely classical liberal economics run wild, nor is it limited to economics alone; it is an interlinking modus vivendi around (loosely) linked ideas with a core driver that Harvey misses (Mirowski 2008, 112–16). In short, it is the ascension to power of a discourse. Recent studies on librarianship do not simply invoke the importance of words (and arguments about them), but they reveal how words actually do things to libraries and their users, how they shape realities (Ingraham 2015; Buschman 2017a), including the meaning of "public." The first of those realities being shaped by neoliberalism, ironically, is defining a specific meaning of "private" and, thus, a corresponding meaning attributed to "public"—they are connected as we saw. For a long time, the market was deemed inappropriate for public functions, and Henry Mintzberg has revealed the classic reason: public institutions exist in a political/public environment [End Page 163] where politics are not separate from administration; the very basis of market accountability is when "performance can be fully and properly evaluated by objective measures"; however, "many activities are in the public sector precisely because of measurement problems" (quoted in Buschman 2005, 8–9). For example, "what is a good public school?" or "what is a good police department?" This is the basis of collective investment in public goods ("they can be consumed by any number of people without being depleted [nor] be confined to individual buyers") and in the public/common good (broad-based interests like democracy, human development, and happiness) (Marginson 2011, 415–18). Libraries and educational institutions subsist on both definitions but probably more on the latter.
The neoliberal attack on this fundamental point took two forms. The first was a blurring of the separation between "public" and "private" in the provision of public services in the form of defining as "public" that which "the public chooses to have. [Free public] access should mean universal opportunities and choices," thereby conflating private and personal choice as a basis for public investments—the school voucher/choice model (Lubienski 2001, 640–41). Common (public) resources are thus converted to (private) consumer choices. The second attack was on democracy itself as it is identified with "public." Popular sovereignty has too often expanded the state and interfered with market operations through bureaucracy, according to neoliberal tenets. A public institution, it is argued, often undercuts individual choice by its subsidy at the public's expense (to which the individual must contribute through taxes), disadvantaging the non-public alternative; it further limits choice in the interests of bureaucratic standardization and bureaucratic expansion/self-interest that is inherent in governmental/public institutions (Chubb and Moe 1997; Buschman 2012). Thus, neoliberals assert the primacy of private over public and the privatization of the public via pay per use for public services, private sector management of public services, the transfer or selling off of public ventures, the deregulation of private ventures to compete with public ones, and using public monies to encourage private enterprises while cutting public ones, thus invoking populist appeals to "return" control to the (private) "people" and away from governmental bureaucrats and "experts" (Whitty 1984, 52–53; Clarke 2004). In this way, private "choice" has been thoroughly mythologized to the point that a traditional argument has been turned on its head (Greenfield 2011).
To illustrate this point—why measuring certain kinds of public outcomes is impossible or undesirable—Mintzberg gives an example of different calculations of the "success rate" of organ transplants, which vary from 9 out of 11 (from the surgeon, who counts only patient survival) to 6 out of 10 (from a hospital administrator, who views costs versus benefits), to 3 out of 10 (from nurses, who count the criterion of quality of post-operative life) (quoted in Buschman 2005, 9). He concludes that decisions in public institutions cannot be nailed down as measurable quantities—again, the basis of market accountability (performance evaluated by objective measures)—requiring instead differing forms of judgment. But the grounds of discussion and judgment—discourse—have changed. By simply transferring the determinants of success from surgeons, nurses, and [End Page 164] hospital administrators (experts and bureaucrats) to individuals and their resources and choices in good neoliberal fashion, outcomes are thus measured in the very terms of those "responsibilis[ed] and autonomis[ed] users"—that is, by how individual choice is maximized under market conditions for health care (Clarke et al. 2007, 120). The definition of success and evidence of it have changed. In some ways, this only describes a circularity: the "public" in public libraries is being undermined and threatened, and the above examples describe some of the key methods but not the fundamental question of how the notion of the public is so threatened. To get at this information, Mirowski's (2009, 2019) work is useful. He has critiqued and thought along with Harvey on neoliberalism, mapping the "thought collective" that formulated neoliberalism over years. Like Mirowski, we are less concerned here with who in the origins of neoliberalism than with the what: it "is not simply or exclusively an economic doctrine; at a deeper level, it is primarily a philosophical credo" in form of an epistemology; neoliberalism's "unity … derives primarily from its epistemological convictions" and leaving "this root 'political epistemology' out of [the] account … omit[s] the essence of the neoliberal project" (Mirowski 2019, 5, 7 emphasis in original). That is, neoliberalism purports to provide an answer to the age-old question: how do we know that we know things and how can we be sure that we know them? Neoliberals promulgate "a potpourri of economic and political doctrines depending on geography and political circumstance"—a flexible set of arguments tailored to audiences but with a few absolutely core and key ideas (Mirowski 2013; 2019, 5). What are they?
First is that "'the market' is … an information processor more powerful than any human brain [and] from this perspective, prices in an efficient market 'contain all relevant information' and therefore cannot be predicted by mere mortals. [It] always surpasses the state's ability to process information" (Mirowski 2009, 29; Van Horn and Mirowski 2010). This is the epistemological answer, full stop: we can know only through cumulated market signals. Second, neoliberalism deploys the long-running opinion—going back to the Greeks and replayed often—of "an addled and befuddled populace" that cannot be trusted to make decisions beyond their ken or attention span and that is inherent to human nature (Mirowski 2009, 10, 30; 2019 6, 10). Combining these two points, the market "is the institutional form proper to [human] nature" (quoted in Lauder 1997, 388). Third, by definition of the inherent superiority of the market as an information processor, democracy and a democratic populace—even with attendant experts, technocrats, scientists—is inherently and vastly inferior as a means of guiding society and the economy, simply because they know less and arrive at decisions by non-legitimate (non-market) means (Mirowski 2009; 2019, 6). It follows that freedom is defined not in political or democratic terms—of autonomous self-governing persons, for instance, since that is irrelevant and unjustified in neoliberalism's epistemological (market) framework. Under neoliberalism's terms, "freedom can't be extended from the use of knowledge in society to the use of knowledge about society"—that would circumvent the market; freedom is defined instead as the "presumption that capital has a [End Page 165] natural right to flow freely across national boundaries," but the obverse, "the free flow of labour has no similar right" (Mirowski 2009, 31; 2013).
If "the definition of the alternatives is the supreme instrument of power," as has been said by Elmer Schattschneider, then this is how the "public" in public libraries is fundamentally threatened: it is now an alternative to a neoliberal discourse reality (quoted in Lubienski 2001, 640). "Public" in the sense that we have defined it here is simply illegitimate under neoliberalism philosophically and epistemologically—it is not a legitimate alternative, part of a class of concepts made "unthinkable" by the hegemony of its discourse (Mirowski 2019). The founders of neoliberalism lived what they believed. One of them "felt so passionately about [these ideas] that he bequeathed his entire fortune to support … the privatization and debasement of public schools [and the] destruction of state-sponsored education was central to [others along with] notion[s] of the optimal ignorance of the masses." These approaches extended to projects to dismantle public broadcasting and public libraries as well as logical extensions of these fundamental ideas and commitments among the founding neoliberals (Mirowski 2019, 7, 9). Mirowski allows us to think through neoliberalism in a way that Harvey simply does not, unpacking both a hidden feature of its discourse dominance and the reason why the "public" in public libraries is so problematic now, even in the face of considerable success in library terms of public service to a community that values it.
This then is the source of the "declining publicness of public services" (quoted in Clarke 2004, 27). Or, put another way, it captures the "decline of public purposes" that hits public libraries so hard (Buschman 2005), bewildering public library users and supporters, seemingly coming out of nowhere. After all, it is a largely popular public service, often willingly paid for by taxpayers who are happy with their libraries, and still public libraries are cut time and again (Stevenson 2001; Bailey 2014; Daily Kos 2014; Trosow 2019). It is not that data and arguments that public libraries improve quality of life (Chow and Tian 2019), that they build and enrich community and cultural heritage (McCook 2003), that they are viable and loved "third places" (Oldenburg 1996–97; Putnam, Feldstein, and Cohen 2003), or that they economically assist during hard times and extend the service reach of government (Jaeger et al. 2011) fall on deaf ears but, rather, that ears have been re-engineered not to hear (or value) such data and arguments.
Think back to the redefinition of the success of surgeries. It is not that it is overly difficult to address the value of public libraries with data but, rather, that the terms and definitions of "value" have simply been redefined so that the "public" values of public libraries are no longer legitimate ones under neoliberal discourse. Budd (1997, 311) is correct in that the "language used to describe … libraries is not neutral … [nor] what it is … communicating and what that may mean to those inside and outside the profession," but the issue goes further. A very recent example illustrates this point perfectly. During a period of some economic retrenchment, a fight developed over a six dollar per hour raise for a [End Page 166] librarian doing two combined jobs in a rural county. The response flummoxed the writer:
The fight over the library was rolled up into a bigger one about the library building, and an even bigger fight than that, about the county government, what it should pay for, and how and whether people should be taxed at all. The library fight was, itself, a fight over the future of rural America, what it meant to choose to live in a county like mine, what my neighbors were willing to do for one another, what they were willing to sacrifice to foster a sense of community here. The answer was, for the most part, not very much.(Potts 2019, n.p.)
Again, it is worth reminding ourselves that we are not alone in this: "The necessary interests of an egalitarian society … means investing in what we've catastrophically undervalued: our bridges and highways and tunnels, our public schools, our fellow citizens" (LeBlanc 2014, n.p.). Bellah (1998, 622) captured the essence of the issue when he wrote: "Our capacity to imagine a social fabric that would hold individuals together is vanishing" under the acids of the political epistemology of the neoliberal project.
But this is not a counsel of despair. Many of the works cited here vigorously push back at this narrative and logic—at fundamental levels—and we risk overstating the depth and reach of these ideas into ordinary peoples' lives (Clarke 2004; Clarke et al. 2007). If, as has been written, "the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else," then we are challenged to put forward other ideas (Horton 2010, n.p.). Continually probing the meaning of "public good/s" as they appear in the faces and lives of public library users, and then placing those "goods" in the path of boards and leadership to communicate them is a central and continuing activity of real value. This is the often unacknowledged core of public libraries (indeed, libraries in general): healthy sociability and democracy and what public libraries do for both. This in turn suggests flipping the question and asking why people are using public libraries when there is so much social and media weight behind the storyline of a dying institution? What is the market not providing that people need and are seeking out in public libraries (Buschman 2018)? This raises another question of the costs (not savings) that cutting public libraries bring: "Diminishe[d] social interaction [and] diversity … because strangers of differing ages, classes, genders, and religions have less opportunity to mingle in physical space [thereby damaging] … inclusivity and community; spatial access and proximity; and a high degree of user" autonomy (quoted in Buschman 2018, 24). It is a negative argument, but we must continue to probe the ways to convey the message through the dominance of neoliberalism: that "public" is legitimate and important to people and the health of democratic society.