Why I think we need to speak out against media assaults on public libraries

Image c/o Stew Dean on Flickr.

Another day, another attack in the media on public libraries. This time by Tim Worstall, fellow at the Adam Smith Institute (so you can pretty much already guess which line he will take), in an article provocatively titled “Close The Libraries And Buy Everyone An Amazon Kindle Unlimited Subscription“. I’m not going to dwell too much on the article itself – suffice it to say it contains the usual logical failings (it is clearly not cheaper to give everyone an Amazon subscription and purchase all the equipment needed for those who are not connected etc etc – frankly it’s astounding a fellow of the Adam Smith Institute is advocating greater public spending). But it did bring to mind, once more, the constant refrain of “ignore this, it’s not worth engaging in”. Which, I think, is a mistake.

Every now and then, a piece arguing for the closure of public libraries emerges that causes consternation and outrage. In some respects, this is what the author intends. Whip up a frenzy, get your name out there, ego stroked, job done, who really cares about libraries? This frenzy, however, results in a kind of split in the library world. There are those who, for example, argue that a counter-attack on such a piece is a sign of a lack of confidence, a sign of weakness. By arguing against such assaults we are overly defensive and we would be better not engaging with these kinds of attack. I, unsurprisingly, disagree.

The problem is that such assaults aren’t really attacks on libraries. Look closer at the arguments and you see this is part of a broader pattern. Often the argument is that libraries are no longer required, that they are irrelevant as everyone is online. Worse, that the amount of money spent maintaining them could be more ‘efficiently’ utilised elsewhere. Is this really a specific attack on libraries? Irrelevance and inefficiency? Is that argument only deployed in relation to public libraries? Of course not. This is a standard strategy when it comes to attacking all public services. They are not required any more, there are more efficient ways of delivering what this service delivers. You see this argument deployed in relation to many public services. And here is the problem: it’s a strategic assault on public services. It is a mistake, I believe, to characterise such attacks as “attacks on public libraries”. It’s a very narrow interpretation of an over-arching political strategy.

I won’t go over the nature of this political ideology as such (see previous posts on this topic). But we need to be clear that an ideological war is being conducted here. It is not a war on libraries. It is a war on public services. Ideological warfare is being conducted and we (by ‘we’ I don’t just mean librarians) must confront this ideological assault. Pretending that these sorts of attacks will go away if we ignore them is equivalent to an ideological war with one side disarmed. The consequences are stark. Ideological wars are not, generally, won with silence. Yes, we need to express our “value” with confidence, but we also need to confront this ideological war head on.

These assaults are not even restricted to public services, they are also an assault on those that rely on public services: the most vulnerable in our society. As professionals (again, I’m talking about all professionals, not just librarians here) we know that there are many that rely on our expertise. We know that there are many who, without our expertise, would suffer even greater hardship. We know, also, that the most vulnerable are often voiceless. As librarians, we are well aware that there is a large minority of people who rely on us and yet also do not have a platform to express that reliance. I strongly believe that it is our responsibility as a profession to speak up in defence of those without a voice. I would argue this applies to all professionals and, I would also argue, this is something that the professional class have largely failed at in the current political climate (it’s amazing, in fact, the extent to which the professional class will remain silent in the face of an assault upon those they should protect). Rather than speaking out strongly on behalf of those who rely on us, we have been largely complicit or unwiling to speak out.

None of this is to say that everyone needs to speak out. What I am saying is that we shouldn’t suggest that collective silence is an option. That turning the other cheek is a logical choice. That if we just ignore these assaults the problems will go away and public libraries will continue as before, unaffected by the words of someone writing a provocative piece on a website that is bound to host such views. This is not about public libraries. This is about an ideological assault with multiple targets determined to undermine and weaken our public services. Libraries are one of these targets, but to think it is a target in isolation is a mistake. The arguments against libraries are variations of the same as those used against other public services. Likewise the arguments for libraries are the same as for other public services. By speaking up, we are not only defending public libraries but the entire notion of public services. Silence is not how we defend ourselves against an ideological battle, it is how we surrender.

First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one
left to speak up for me.

Martin Niemöller

@ijclark

Librarian and co-founder of a leading national library advocacy campaign, I have written articles on a range of professional issues for a number of publications including The Guardian, Information Today Europe, Library Journal and the Open Rights Group.

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3 Comments

  1. Reply
    Lynn McAlister 21/07/2014

    Well said, my friend.

  2. Reply
    Murali 23/07/2014

    Beautifully written piece!

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