Libraries: the best form of government
This is, in part, an unabashed love note to libraries. I’ve always been a fan of the library. In high school I spent a lot of my free time there, and in college I studied at the college library, a lot of which really meant talking and having fun and hanging out with friends. In New York I used to live not too far from the main Brooklyn library branch, a gorgeous building and an incredible resource. But only recently did I discover that my Brooklyn library card also gives me unlimited access to countless audiobooks on my phone. Almost simultaneous with that realization came the news that Eric Adams was attacking the NYC public library system.
Now, thanks to the mayor, a lot of our beautiful community centers, book homes, and places of fun and learning are closed every Sunday. By that I of course mean that a lot of libraries are now closed on Sundays. So this piece is more than a love note to the library, to libraries, it’s a mini-manifesto on the importance of the institution, the idea. It’s a short screed saying just how much we should fund our libraries, and emulate their model in our approach to government and policy. We should preserve and protect them, learn from their example, and carry the idea behind the institution into the way we structure society.
That’s the main branch of the Brooklyn Library right there, but for the past month or so I’ve been living in my partner’s hometown out West, after a life spent in big cities. It’s a fairly small town, under 10,000, and right near the center of it all is the local library. Well, at least it’s the center for me. I’ve been working many hours a day, every day, at the library. It’s a place where I can spend unlimited time, as long as it’s open. It’s a place I can get free wifi and where I don’t have to explain myself to anyone in any way. My partner and I can get books, DVDs, or use the computers if we didn’t have our own. They host movie screenings and discussion groups and free classes. There’s roku sticks you can borrow and free access to a streaming service. And probably 10 other things I don’t even know about.
A lot of these fantastic offerings are unknown to most people, and a step in preserving libraries for years to come is to let people know just how great they are and encourage them to take advantage of the opportunities that libraries provide. But that’s just a first step. Whether it’s budget cuts from the mayor of New York or fascists attacking drag story hours, protecting libraries takes more than just celebrating them. As the For The People library project says:
We on the Left(s) must focus on strengthening and expanding public institutions that we value. That means stepping up in our local communities and taking action in the places that decisions are made. Each local public library is governed by a library board, although specific structures vary from system to system. If we want to defend public libraries, we need to find out how power works where we live, and start showing up.
I couldn’t agree more with this statement, and the project it emanates from. We have to show up, we have to participate in the survival of these vital institutions, just as real democracy as a whole involves meaningful action, and the investment and involvement of all of us. From school boards to unions to library boards to community organizations, democracy is a verb. And if that sounds cliched, that’s okay, it’s still a fundamental truth that has been passed over for too long. For generations democracy has been a spectator sport – it’s time for us to get out there, to get involved, to know that we have power then band together to wield it.
New Means is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a paid subscriber.
And libraries are the perfect place to put this philosophy into action. We didn’t choose the battleground, but we have to step up to the battle. From the austerity and defunding of public services inherent to neoliberalism, to the far-right attacks on difference and the public good, the opposition has chosen libraries. They decided to attack this pillar of our communities and all that it represents. The right knows that libraries help the homeless, help kids learn, build community, and open doors. For these very reasons they set their sights on them. And for these exact same reasons, we must defend them.
For all of these reasons, and one more. Every one of these countless good things that libraries provide, the public space, the public knowledge, the warmth and safety and internet access and free classes and more, comes from one fundamental idea. It’s the radical notion that we can create a society, and government, that cares for us – that we can provide for one another. And that we can do it without a profit motive, simply because we think that’s the way it ought to be.
Libraries embody this idea, this philosophy. They are the incarnation of building a world where we all have what we need. In a way, they’re a drop in the bucket, but when we take a much broader view libraries represent what we could and should create. Libraries are one institution where we use our resources to give each other what we need, use them to build something that simply helps all of us, because that’s the way it should be. That’s the way everything should be. Our governmental structures and agencies should not be in the service of business, or violence, but rather should exist to facilitate all of us providing each other with what we need to survive and thrive.
This is why libraries are under attack. They are the physical incarnation of an approach to life and politics and humanity that would, if it was expanded upon, let us live, and live well. And therefore they’re threatening. Libraries are a little window into a world where we aren’t scrambling to survive, where profit doesn’t dominate our every decision, where we’re freer to explore because our needs are met.
So I’m writing this to say that libraries are the future. Link up with the For The People project and defend them in the present, but also organize for the long haul to model our government and our politics and our society a little more on libraries. Fight to protect spaces where we can just exist, for free. Fight to protect knowledge and learning and institutions being publicly owned and available for all of us. Fight for a country and a world where we produce public good just for the sake of our collective wellbeing, not because it turns a buck. We can live in this world, we see this powerful example that library provides and know it’s possible. We know it’s valuable and necessary, and that we can extend it to other walks of life. So let’s make it happen.
Thank you for reading! To support my work and make more of it possible consider becoming a paid subscriber - Josh
Take action with For The People: https://www.librariesforthepeople.org/action
Ten ways to help your local library: https://www.librariesforthepeople.org/resources#ten-ways
Free audiobooks through your library with Libby: https://www.overdrive.com/apps/libby
Free streaming through your library with Kanopy: https://www.kanopy.com/en
Check out the American Library Association: https://www.ala.org/