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Future Tense

Last Stand of the Librarians

In his autobiography, Ben Franklin tells a story about borrowing a book. In the state legislature where he worked, a colleague had been giving him grief, and so Franklin plotted to become his enemy’s friend by borrowing one of the man’s rare books, reading it carefully, and returning it promptly and in excellent condition. They discussed the book’s content thereafter, and remained friends until the end of their days. Franklin includes the anecdote to demonstrate how easy it is to overcome one’s enemies through kindness and patience, but the story also sheds light on reading in sixteenth-century America: despite Guttenberg’s revolution, books primarily educated the upper classes. They were still expensive and sometimes hard to find (except, of course, for the Holy Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress).

Later, Franklin would operate the Library Company of Philadelphia, a subscription-based service founded on July 1, 1731; throughout his life he championed book-lending to such an extent that when a town named itself after him, and asked him to donate a church bell, he sent crates of books for a library instead, writing that “sense” was preferable to “sound.” His straightforward attitude and good-humored demeanor—not to mention the basic model of the “library,” a place for anyone to improve his or her education through reading—continue to inspire librarians today. This July is the 280th anniversary of the library as a social institution, and one week ago (June 23 – 28), librarians from all over the U.S. flocked to New Orleans for the annual conference of the American Library Association.

One imagines they will be discussing their abandonment by the general public, both in terms of patronage and in terms of funding. Among the tables of authors and galleys, they’ll be asking themselves many questions, including “How can the library survive in an era when no one reads?” and “What does the twenty-first century need librarians for anyway?”

My mom is a librarian, and she went to ALA in New Orleans; like other librarians, she’s tech-savvy, and she’ll tweeted and updated her Facebook status on her smartphone. We grew up visiting our small town’s public library every week, a Carnegie library built in 1902 with a limestone façade and terracotta roofing tiles. But now my mom worries that libraries are in danger. She might be right. This May, Amazon announced that it sold more e-books that paperbacks and hardcovers combined—105 Kindle books for every 100 print editions. Despite advances in that direction, libraries haven’t been able to find a simple, universal way of checking out e-books. Some check out the Kindles or E-readers themselves, so fragile, easily lost or stolen; some use a lending service called Overdrive, but the application is clunky and difficult to use on both iPhones and iPads. Overdrive recently partnered with Amazon, so perhaps in the future the e-book lending process will be streamlined. But how will it work? Will you pay a fee, as you do with music services like Rhapsody—and as you did at Ben Franklin’s Library Company—to download as many free books as you want?

On top of the uncertain mechanics of library lending in the 21st century, many libraries find their budgets under the knife. This is especially troubling, because libraries are important to the survival of a healthy literary journal community (more on this in a minute). On June 15th, The Queens Gazette reported that an “estimated $25.3 million funding cuts threaten the jobs of 471 Queens Library workers;” if the cuts pass, 48 Queens Library branches will be closed. And it isn’t just public libraries that are threatened. Increasingly, school librarians have found themselves in the crosshairs, an idea that was once unthinkable. In California, for example, the Folsom Cordova Unified School District closed 28 libraries in 2009, leaving 19,000 students in grades K-12 without access to books and computers.

Many librarians are worried about their future careers. Some are worried that the institution itself. They shouldn’t be. The world still needs librarians—and here’s three reasons why, among thousands of others:

  1. 1. Books still educate the upper and middle classes. Not everyone can afford the $114 to buy a Kindle. Most people, at the same time, can’t afford to buy books—let alone to store them! Books are expensive and take up too much space (come help me move if you don’t believe me). Libraries remain a place where people can have free, easy access to books, regardless of their sex, race, nation, religion, or sexual orientation. Some people use libraries to learn English. I once knew a homeless man, a Vietnam veteran, who used the public library to email friends and family, just to let them know he was all right.
  2. 2. Librarians protect your freedom of speech. No one is fiercer about defending the First Amendment, with the possible exception of journalists. Communities often contain ignorant, motivated demographics that would censor ideas they don’t agree with. It only takes a few. But even the most quiet, taciturn librarian is liable to balk at a book-banning crusade—and, better yet, to stop it in its tracks. Whether defending The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from those who would bowdlerize it, or standing up to those who would prohibit kids from reading Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why—a young adult novel about suicide—librarians are immovable in their support of literature, even when it’s controversial.
  3. 3. Libraries build communities. Through outreach programs, book sales, bookmobiles, and children’s story hour, your local library offers a potential community hub. It can work with other institutions, such as churches and universities, to ensure children are educated; and educated children grow up to be successful, well-rounded adults. If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a village with a library, although that can’t really be distilled into a catchphrase.
  4. 4. Libraries support literary journals. Even though almost no one—and I do mean no one—subscribes to the University of Kansas’s Cottonwood Magazine, the journal is still alive, in large part thanks to subscriptions purchased by libraries. As a co-editor, I use the library system to browse old back issues of journals, looking for talent I can solicit for our forthcoming titles. Many journals now offer digital subscriptions through Kindles or other reader devices, and a library can help with that, too; in short, libraries are symbiotic to literary journals, and people who love journals would be fools to let America’s library system capsize without a fight.

Today, I spend a lot of time in libraries, including the libraries on campus at the University of Kansas. Sometimes I take my work to the Spencer Rare Books Library, and spend the afternoon reading and writing in the North Gallery; usually I hold conferences at the humanities library, not far from my office, in a café adjacent to the circulation desk. I do much of my research online through KU’s library system. In closing, I’d like to ask anyone who reads this to post a comment explaining why libraries are important to you—and why, when they find themselves embattled, and possibly imperiled or endangered, librarians and libraries need our support and our unwavering commitment.

Ben Pfeiffer is the managing editor and co-founder of Beecher’s Magazine. He currently teaches at the University of Kansas, where he is an MFA Candidate in Fiction. For more information on his projects, future events, and forthcoming writing, visit his website, WritingInTheWild.org.

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