Fall 2003

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Editorial: Where We Are And Where We May Go

by Dr. William Taber, NYSALB Director

Fall 2003 issue of Trustee

Guest Editorial - Over the years, William Taber's articles have filled the pages of TRUSTEEŠenjoyed by one and all. We've asked Bill to pen the following piece because of his grasp of the many subjects that go into the make up of the fiscal crisis in which libraries find themselves today.  You may, of course, agree or disagree with his conclusions. (Edwin M. Field, NYSALB Director, TRUSTEE Editor)

Many of you have been trustees long enough to see New York State grudgingly and continually underfund public library services in both times of plenty and in times of scarcity. In times of plenty, libraries are given lip service, but the money goes elsewhere. In times of scarcity, there are cuts to be shared. To paraphrase an old truth, you know them not by their lips but by the consistency of their actions. The underlying consistency is that public libraries need not share in largesse but they must share in pain.

If this pattern reminds you of the attitudes of elites toward non-elites in history and of the attitudes of aristocratic domination in Europe that forced many of our ancestors to escape to the New World, it is not a coincidence. Public libraries are inherently anti-elitist. They serve the public; they are used by the public; they are supported by the public, and they bring comfort and power (through knowledge) to the public.

To any established economic, political, or social elite, public libraries are essentially irrelevant. At worst, they are costly, useless, and perhaps even dangerous philosophically to the interests of such elites.

As I write this, the annual pilgrimage by library supporters to various politicians is taking place to beg those dispensers of our tax money to allow decent funding of the state's public libraries. Much of this pleading (barring a miracle) is futile, but the desperation of public libraries is not the result of any faults or inadequacies of the libraries themselves. The plight of the libraries is but a small symptom of a larger process (not just limited to the present administrations of the state and nation). The normally beneficent functions and powers of democratic government and free economy are rapidly bending to the purposes of a very small stratum of our society, an already entrenched elite with values that are highly self-interested and self-satisfied. How can this be?

To start with, we see that forty percent of the entire wealth of the United States is now owned by one percent of the population, and further wealth is controlled through  corporations and political influence. Like it or not, here is a picture of that initial disparity: if $100 were to be shared by 100 people to live upon, then 1 person has $40. Assuming (unrealistically) that the remainder is shared equally, the other 99 persons in the population each would have 61 cents upon which to live.

Beyond this, U.S. wealth is concentrated even further by global corporations that are now so immense that they virtually monopolize our national economy and, increasingly, government policy. The middle class and small business, of which our nation was once so proud and which traditionally supports public libraries, is shrinking under the pressure, and it has less and less influence upon the mind-set of those in power.

If we had effective barriers to prevent such economic disparities from being translated into control of government and policy, political democracy would not be as threatened as it is now. However, the barriers have fallen, and most people know it. The costs of elections are ratcheted upward by the impact of the oceans of money that have swept over compliant politicians. The whole political system is now essentially corrupt; policy, taxes, and budgets increasingly reflect the interests of that narrow stratum rather than the interests of the nation, or of the public, as a whole. Against this background, New York State is not especially bad; it has simply failed to resist the mainstream.

No wonder the public libraries are always so low a political priority!

What can public libraries do? I can think of three elements of a strategy for the future created by this climate.

The first is to recognize what is becoming of our nation so that we can get out of the beggar's state of mind; I've done that above. Americans, at least the Americans of the past, tend to dislike being governed by elites once they recognize that it is happening. The second is to become a single issue political partisan until an historical corrective cycle reoccurs, if it ever does.  The third (related to the second) is to change the State's constitution so as to get somewhat above the battle for survival.

As the second element, we know that votes still count and that public libraries cannot bring to the table the requisite millions of dollars that is the present political currency of choice. Therefore, libraries must use the only political potential that they have and transform it into their own form of currency that may affect some of those votes.

The conventional wisdom is that public libraries should not be political, and this makes sense if you take it to mean that they should not align themselves with any political party or with its philosophy as such. Nevertheless, it is appropriate and necessary in this age of rampant self-interest for public libraries to become INTENSE SINGLE ISSUE PARTISANS who publicly support INDIVIDUAL CANDIDATES REGARDLESS OF PARTY on the basic issue of public libraries: proper and adequate funding for public libraries and, by extension, for the important services that only public libraries provide to the public in a free and decent society.

When single issue partisanship is combined with a rigid focus upon the individual politician rather than party, it becomes a tactic that creates for politicians a competitive arena for votes. Republicans and Democrats and others are equally welcome to this arena. They hate each other but not the support that they may earn in the arena.

Although public libraries may create the arena, the libraries remain as neutral as before on everything except the library issue (upon which they must be visibly and tenaciously implacable). Similar to the neutral nations of the world, they will trade with whoever gives them the best deal. No party loyalty, no ideological loyalty, no friendships, no identification with normal politics: just a focus upon the best deal for the main issue and an attitude of what have you done for me lately? Welcome to modern America.

Can libraries and library organizations select candidates to support? Can libraries affect votes? Of course they can.

Public libraries should select and support those individual politicians, regardless of party, who prove themselves to support public libraries on the bottom line. The standard of proof cannot be lip service ("I am in favor of libraries, but I must vote with my party. Maybe next time will be better.").

It must be action only: bills introduced, voting records, speeches, debates, challenges to leadership, repeated member items, writing, lobbying with fellow politicians, previous service to libraries, specific public promises that are measurable in effect, and so on -- all to the service of public libraries.

The library's specific perspective upon politicians could be something like, "We know that you love public libraries, but show me specifically what you have done recently that would not have happened anyway if you were not around?  Exactly what are you going to do this next year that is worth our supporting you?"

Each library has some knowledge about this already on the local political level. On the national and state levels, those organizations that have wider resources such as ALA and NYLA might well provide information for more coordinated efforts.

To affect votes requires the libraries to use their voices, their resources, their locations, their newsletters, and their constant visibility to an intelligent section of the voting public to promote their own cause TO THE PUBLIC, not just to politicians as we now do without much success.  Every library can use its own posters, handouts, photographs, book markers, advertisements, and web pages to display prominently the names, faces, and library funding records of those who satisfy these criteria in the opinion of the library.

It must ALWAYS make very clear that it is the individual who is being referred to, that his or her credentials on the library issue are the sole attribute that is being recognized, and that continued praise and encouragement is contingent upon his future support of the library. This is campaigning for the library, not for the politician nor his party nor his ideology.

The third element is an amendment to the NYS Constitution to guarantee adequate state funding to public libraries. When passed, this will emancipate the libraries from politics, but, until then, one of the criteria by which politicians must earn library support will be their help with this amendment.

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