The Miraculous Existence of Libraries

General Interest

By: Jessica Garner

Many times, when I’m brainstorming the next topic for this space, I lose sight of the institution underpinning this entire exercise in intellectual freedom: libraries themselves. And then I am reminded the myriad of ways a library itself is an exercise in intellectual freedom.

It’s easy for the old brick-and-mortar public and academic libraries to be forgotten in the glare of Google, Wikipedia, Netflix, Spotify and Flipboard. But a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center and the ALA’s 2017 State of the Libraries Report both seem to indicate the endurance of libraries. I believe I may have taken this enduring popularity for granted.

This, as the famous radio host Paul Harvey would have said, is the rest of the story.

My husband recently suggested a podcast episode to me from the Chris Hayes podcast “Why Is This Happening?” The episode, titled “Who Broke the Internet” (May 29, 2017) is a one-on-one interview with Tim Wu, a Columbia Law Professor and author who famously coined the term “net neutrality.” The conversation is informative—you can listen to the entire podcast here—but one exchange stood out. The exchange begins just before the 15:00 mark, if you want to skip ahead, but context is important.

Hayes relays a point made by a friend: “If libraries didn’t exist today, you couldn’t bring them into existence. You couldn’t go to Congress and say, ‘Listen, publishers of America, we have a bill to publicly fund a place where people just loan out your product and then [patrons] get it and they bring it back… Are you cool with that?’ Of course no one would be cool with that. They’d kill it. They’d destroy it. And yet we all understand how fundamental libraries are to democracy.”

Stop and just marinate in this thought for a while.

In a conversation about the structural problems of the internet’s system of information sharing and dissemination, the standard against which the entire paradigm of online life is measured is still the library. And the explicit point about the incongruous non-viability of libraries only serves to remind me even more about how lucky we are to have libraries at all. Somehow, these spaces we love, where information is stored and freely exchanged and access to imperfect offspring of libraries—the internet—is available, have endured and evolved. Libraries are as strong as ever.

Not to be flippant, but somehow intellectual freedom has remained… well… free. (Of course it isn’t exactly free. We all understand how public institutions come to be.) There are so many ways in which libraries have pioneered the fight for intellectual freedom. Access itself remains the most vital aspect of the service.

I was still thinking about the Hayes/Wu conversation—particularly the brief exchange on libraries—when I stumbled on the aftermath of a Twitter conversation about the different effects of the internet on the music and publishing industries. If the podcast made one point, Twitter drove it home.

Irish entrepreneur Patrick Collison wondered aloud (in an internet way, meaning he tweeted out a thought) why Napster had transformed the music industry into a largely online model while books had not made the transition online as wholly. A second commenter pointed out that pirated books were readily available online. Collison’s response, to give him the benefit of the doubt, followed the thread of the conversation less than it did pure logic.

Cue the responses.

So there it is again. In a world where public libraries shouldn’t be able to exist, they are still relevant. They are easily forgotten when the questions of intellectual freedom and intellectual honesty and privacy are discussed. Facebook, Twitter, and Google often hog the spotlight because they are new and working under a different paradigm in so many ways.

But the model of the public library and its history of safeguarding patrons and their rights to explore information is still the gold standard. That’s a context I try to keep sight of.

 


Jessica GarnerJessica Garner is the Access Services Department Head at Georgia Southern University and has worked in Public and Academic libraries for over ten years. She has been involved with Children’s Services, Collection Development, Cataloging and Interlibrary Loan first as a Public Librarian at Live Oak Public Libraries and then at Georgia Southern University. Her scholarship interests include Interlibrary loan, intellectual freedom, and patron services. Find her on Twitter @jessCgarner.

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