Winter 2001

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Can The Small Be Heard?

By Dr. William R. Taber, NYSALB Trustee

Winter 2001 issue of Trustee

The large and the small scenarios within a nation tend to reflect each other. This is not surprising since we all live in a close interdependence with each other, and individual lives overlap in millions of experiences and activities within our shared economy or community. We borrow mental pictures from what we see and learn there, and we tend to apply them to future situations as expectations, solutions, or values. In a mercantile dominated society, for example, the users of local libraries may be called customers rather than patrons or guests. In an economy where "rip off" on the local level (say, something as simple as the purchase price of a car, of fuel oil, of a box of cereal, etc.) is a familiar experience, we are not really shocked by the arrogance that we see in the scrambles for political power on the national level. The stories are similar.


Small libraries and the larger society are as interdependent as the individual is with the nation  ---for the same reasons. But anything small against anything large is always an uncertain relationship unless some legitimate process can mediate the disparate amounts of power between the two; otherwise, history shows that force and repression fill the gap and that the small is extinguished or nudged toward poverty, serfdom, or (if you are a businessman in a local economy) franchises. The issues of what is legitimate mediation are becoming more intense on both national and local levels, especially when the small chooses to follow goals and values that are not really respected and understood by the large. To exist (as do public libraries) in order to contribute to the benefit of society without overriding self-interest as our motivation is to be in conflict with very powerful viewpoints in the larger society.


As I write this, the fairness, completeness, and accuracy of a Presidential election is being seriously questioned in the courts. Whatever may be the eventual outcome of this specific contest, the long-term fundamentals of democracy rest upon a faith by the small (the voter) that the vote itself will be counted, and counted fairly, and will meaningfully determine some aspect of the large (the government in this case). Historically, we have ignored many occasions of vote mishandling because we had been a nation of such wealth and individual freedoms in our personal lives that we could afford to be careless. Today, despite the veil of the recent spurt of prosperity, we can see that the power of the small against the large has eroded enormously. The disparities of wealth, political power, and corporate hugeness that now exist are almost beyond description. In the case of the citizen (unless you are among the top in wealth, corporate power, and political leverage), the only tool that still has some claim to sanctity (not yet merely a vestige of an earlier time) is the vote. When that bit of individual power is ignored, we will follow a well-trod road toward some self-proclaimed autocracy.


Likewise, the library, which is small by definition, depends upon the fairness, completeness, and accuracy of the mediation between it and the larger society. This is clear to us when the library is portrayed as pandering to pornographers, when politicians ignore its financial needs, when book companies charge libraries more than list prices, when citizens steal books and other materials, when myths about its operations are encouraged. Recently a county legislator was quoted in a newspaper, "It's a matter of philosophy. Libraries are a local issue, not a county responsibility." Read: "You are not important to us. Go away." 


The public library must "vote"; it must try to make its needs and wishes known. Its "vote" is services offered, lobbying, public events, ceremonies, programs, writing, newsletters, community activities, measuring the needs of the community, projects, advertisements, any encouragement of rationality or informed compassion. It struggles to make its small voice heard by the large interests who control so much of the national resources.


But will it be heard? Will it be heard fairly, completely, and accurately? If not, library service will end up serving only the interests of the large.


The only mediation available to us is an enlightened public. Therefore, it is also to the vital interest of the library, as it is to the voter, to publicly support the values of fairness, completeness and accuracy as much as we can through our contacts with the public. The mental habits that we encourage on the local level must compete with the models of self-interest that are so dominant elsewhere in our world. It is a matter of "philosophy", as the legislator said.  We have to proclaim our answer to that philosophy of unenlightened self interest that so dominates the larger scenes in our nation and hope that someday, somehow, our answer will trickle upward.

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