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Monday, June 8, 2015

Self-interest versus the common good

I've been working on my next book, tentatively titled "The Public Library and the Public Good: A Renaissance." Here's the kernel of my idea.

There are two arguments for the public library: what's in it for me, and what's in it for us. That is, we justify support for an institution on the grounds of self-interest, or on the grounds of the common good.

You can't help but be struck by the language used during the public library movement of the 1880s. Libraries were founded for clear social purposes. They were intended to acculturate and Americanize a new wave of immigrants. They were meant to reform the rowdy miners and common laborers through exposure to Great Literature. They were designed to inform the citizen on the issues of the day, the better to advance an enlightened democracy. They were conceived to give tangible evidence of civilization, of a town or community that was now grown up enough to invest in serious pursuits. 

The public library, like public education, was a responsibility to society, and to the future. It had solid support from business and civic leader alike.

But that language is all but forgotten now. Since the 1960s, no institution has escaped the relentless question: "what do I get out of it?" And if the answer is "nothing immediate," then the follow-up question is, "then why should I have to pay for it?" Or as Homer Simpson complained after being informed that a deep fat frying machine could cook a whole cow in 9 seconds: "But I wanted it now!"

Investment in institutions is by definition long term. There may be, there must be, many projects that have closer horizons. But successful enterprises have to think beyond the moment. They have to anticipate shifts in the environment, some of which may not be obvious.

The challenge, of course, is getting people now conditioned to think of just-in-time production to pay for something they may not need for a decade, but when they do, the markets won't be able to provide, or the public won't be able to afford. The institution of the public library is one of the underground aquifers, a wellspring from which tomorrow's water is fed. It is time to acknowledge and cherish that wellspring.

Of course, the public library has solid and powerful responses to both challenges: a host of Return on Investment studies across the country have shown that libraries reliably return between $5 and $8 on every tax dollar in immediate services. This is quite apart from our yeoman's work in, for instance, helping people find work or create new businesses.

We also, over the long term, nurture the young minds and hearts who will build the society after ours. And now we shift from the language of business to the language of human development.

Both arguments are necessary. But while many librarians have now learned to speak the language of self-interest, we have fallen out of practice in conveying the importance of the public good. Yet libraries are one of the few, remaining institutions people that people trust. Thus it is urgent that we step up to the challenge, reclaim our legacy as the foundation of community and society, and lead a renaissance. In a time when corporations are people and the government is the enemy, we must reclaim a moral pride in institutions that know their value, and demonstrate their worth.

2 comments:

Robert Hollowell said...

That's what a librarian would say.

James LaRue said...

And now I've said it!