Libraries are not Luxuries

This post was written by Saetia and is also posted at Gender-NOS.

A post on libraries might seem out of place given the usual focus of this blog.  I’d argue, though, that this is an issue that intersects with issues of religion and gender in ways that may not be immediately obvious. Saetia raises some of these points re: gender below, so I won’t belabor those.

With respect to religion, the religious right is in general a strong voice in favor of classist policies that harm the poor. Many white conservative American Christians buy into the idea that poverty is the consequence of bad choices or sinful living and hold a philosophy of “personal responsibility” that ignores how class oppression and systemic inequalities limit people’s options and entrench people in a cycle of poverty. There’s also a deep hostility towards broad education, and towards the idea that such an education is a basic human right. These attitudes contribute to evangelical and fundamentalist support for policies that punish people for being poor, and for policies that underfund, defund, or severely limit educational services and curricula.


They are the books, the arts, the academes,
That show, contain and nourish all the world.
- William Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost


It is a summer morning in the mid- nineties.  I am seven years old.  I had a hot dog bun for lunch.  I’d toasted it in the oven to try to make it seem more exciting.

My knees are bandaged, partly because I’d fallen off my bike the previous day and partly because kids use bandaids at every opportunity, like accessorizing.  The way girls that age want braces or crutches.  Same deal.

The library carpet is ugly and familiar, an expanse of that scratchy ubiquitous blue-grey industrial kind.  I am folded into a corner and I am absolutely absorbed.  A little handful of pilfered candy sits tucked into the pocket of my shorts, like Francie’s bowl of candy so essential to her library ritual in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn.

In defense of libraries I am obligated here to mention that I came from a busted up home like the rest of us.  Yawn.  So cliché.  I hate talking about my fucked-up childhood.  But it’s important to mention that things are kind of shitty right now for that little girl in the shorts with the skinny legs and bandaged knees.  The projects are tough.  The night before the police came and searched her closet for bodies.  Her mom is in the hospital.  Her dad lifts her into the air to make her laugh and teaches her to play cribbage, but his eyes are bleary and alien by three in the afternoon.  His roommate beats his dog and gets into brawls while she watches silently, something she will continue to do for the rest of her life.

But the library is cool today, and quiet.  There are no clouds in her sky.

The library I went to as a child shut down this year, one of several in the district’s poorest areas that went under after taxpayers decided there were a million more important things to throw the public’s money at.  This year, the library where I spent so many hours in middle and high school changed its policy – library access is now restricted for patrons who do not own their own home.  Library cards, once a thing that helped children feel empowered – their very own card!  For free! – now costs a HUNDRED DOLLARS.  (http://arapahoelibraries.org/ald/content/get-a-library-card)

There are “limited” library cards for poor kids in Aurora.  I assume they are stamped with the words “You are not good enough to read all you want.”

Libraries should not be luxuries, reserved for those who can afford their services.  Libraries were meant as an equalizer.  Knowledge is an industry nowadays, where valuable information is apportioned out for heinous fees for those lucky enough to be involved in institutions of higher learning.  Is that the problem?  That the self-taught and the poor geniuses have access to these free universities, which makes them a significant danger to those who oppress them?  That sounds pretty paranoid, but we have to consider it.  I think the real reason is that people who obsess over high taxes cut first the things that don’t apply to them or their own privileged offspring.

Shutting down libraries and restricting access on the basis of income has sweeping consequences for children, especially those from low-income and single-parent households. The implications of shutting down libraries are racialized and anti-woman.  Of course they are.  Any attack on the poor is an attack on women and people of color, and their children.  Children who cannot afford a home computer use libraries to prepare themselves for the increasingly difficult and digitized research projects they will encounter in high school and college.  There is a digital divide for poor children, and libraries – which account for the sole source of public internet in 71% of lower-income communities – are essential in closing that.  There is an obvious link between literacy and poverty.  Libraries pull kids off the streets and out of jails.  They give them a place to go and learn and be safe after school.  But there is an implication many people might be missing.

Psychologists going to public libraries to find books on childhood physical or sexual abuse will often find themselves shit out of luck.  They will find nothing.  Those sections are where the shelves go slack.

It’s not because these books do not exist; they do, and there are quite a few of them.

These books are all checked out by kids.  Little girls and boys who are experiencing these abuses find these books, sneak them under shirts or hide them behind larger ones and squirrel them away to corners.  They check them out or they hide them or steal them.  They are desperate to discover that they are not alone.  That is what that little girl with the bandaged knees was reading in the corner, and it helped her realize that she wasn’t alone either.  They saved her life.  This is a nationwide trend.

That is what libraries do for all of us.  They provide us access to a community outside our immediate vicinity.  They hold the keys to pieces of our identity only accessible through relation with the outside world.  They aren’t only about books.  They’re about literacy and community programs and the big wide important world of the Internet.  They’re about a place to go.  But they are definitely about books, too.

Books are buddies for kids that, for whatever reason, don’t have any.  Books are bombs.  Books are windows to climb through.  Books are curiously shaped unidentifiable objects to hold in your hands, turning them around and around while the world spins and you try to make sense of the microcosms they reveal.  Books take you apart and realign you in new and exciting ways.  And In some cases, books are bricks which you stack around yourself, a psychic Fort Knox which shelters you from a vicious world.

Libraries are important.  They are life rafts.  They are where the self-taught geniuses that will save us tomorrow find their tools.  They are where those in pain may bury themselves in the safety of alternative worlds.  They are where poor, hurting kids walk through the sliding doors and dig up the keys to the treasure house.

8 Comments

  1. Very strong post, glad that you shared your voice on this blog. Your message speaks about the importance of books and information access, and mercifully leaves out many of the excruciating details about just how horrible the trends are for public libraries. I was wondering if you (or any of the traffic driven here) has insight on ways to mobilize on this issue. Are there non-profits doing any kind of good? Should I just badger essentially useless congresspeople? In any event, thanks for the message.

    • Great question, Jordan – I know about Save Libraries, which is a grassroots organization. I’m sure there are other ways to help; hopefully other commenters will weigh in with suggestions.

      • I work at a public library, and while it would be great to have more recognition at the state level, local movements are essential to what we do. Most libraries will have a “Friends of the Library” group that will hold fund-raising events for them, and they are absolutely essential. I work in the Young Adult Department, and the money raised by the Friends of the Library (FOTL) funds 100% of our programming to reach out to teens in the area. We hold monthly Friday night lock-ins where teens can come and read for 3 hours undisturbed and eat pizza and talk about books with other teens who enjoy reading. The FOTL pay for the pizza and the police officer we are required to have in the building to run the program. You may think the pizza is a silly thing, but a free meal for their kids is what gets many parents of underprivileged children to drop their teens off. And those teens develop a love of reading that helps them do better in school, and hopefully break the poverty cycle. We don’t reach enough teens in the community, but at least we reach some. Like I said, none of these funds come from either the state or the county. FOTL also purchases equipment, books, funds events for all ages, and training for staff. If we were required to run our library on just the funds we receive from the government, we would be in far more difficulty than we are now in the current budget crisis. The FOTL are also a network of people to call on when there is an issue involving the library that requires public support. There was a referendum in the last election that had it not gone through would have dramatically cut our existing funding. The FOTL put signs up and spread the word that the referendum would have a direct impact on the library. If your local library has a Friends group, join it. Help out at their fund-raisers. It will have more impact than you can possibly imagine.

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  3. I posted this on my facebook — thank you for this post. I think I may agree with EVERYTHING you said.

  4. I also posted this on facebook. Thanks for a great guest post!

  5. My youngest is now a Librarian with an MLIS degree and a job. Our family has been going to the library all their lives, including one blizzardy night when we pulled the four of them, one a baby, them on a toboggan and we were the only customers.
    A wonderful post. Thank you.