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Reader Alan Hemphill wrote a self-described screed called “The Museum Once Called a Library.” His argument was simple and based on the libertarian belief that government should not fund services people can buy for themselves. It went like this: There is no longer a need for libraries because books are now available in digital form online. The people who need the information normally found in libraries can buy it for themselves online. Ergo: Taxpayers should no longer fund the operation of libraries.
Pretty much anyone would agree technology has changed the way we access and consume books, and public libraries will be different in the future than they are today. But I doubt most San Diegans would agree that public libraries will become obsolete anytime soon, or only those who can pay should have access to their information. Most people simply don’t perceive libraries the way Mr. Hemphill does. He sees them as useless warehouses for books and ignores their value as dispensaries of knowledge. He denigrates their role as a public gathering place and has no respect for their symbolism. Before I address his argument, let’s talk about libertarianism.
According to Murray Rothbard, author of For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, libertarians believe in the liberty of every individual and see government as an enterprise that not only impedes individual freedom but is in a constant state of manipulating how public opinion and systems operate in order to control that freedom. Libertarians view taxes as coercion and believe whatever services government performs could be supplied more efficiently and morally by private and cooperative enterprise.
While this may sound like a great set of ideals, and may be true, the utopian dream of pure freedom is impractical. Our society and its underlying economic system are too complex for every man to be for himself or for every need to be fulfilled through independent cooperation. Yet, the opportunity to preach the libertarian gospel is tempting and our libraries are an easy target for criticism because of funding problems, the politics surrounding the new central library and the changes libraries are confronting due to advances in technology. Furthermore, to the true libertarian, buying one’s own information online is the very definition of an act of individual freedom.
But let’s get real. Should people have to buy access to the information now found in a library on an ad hoc rather than systemic basis? Is a library really just a warehouse, or, as Mr. Hemphill put it, a place for the “La Jolla matron checking out her semi-pornographic chick-book by Danielle Steele,” whose boosters are an “effete crowd of better-dressed, well-coiffed people with fewer tattoos than Charger fans”?
We the people pay for public libraries with our tax dollars so that all residents of our community have the opportunity to learn, and from what we learn, to contribute to the health and progress of our society individually or collectively. At their core, public libraries are about the availability of information to anyone regardless of motive, results or ability to pay. It seems downright undemocratic and certainly selfish to limit or link access to library knowledge to the ability to pay.
Yes, libraries store books (and a myriad of other things), but libraries are not inanimate objects. They are full of librarians and users who bring them alive. Librarians gather, catalog, research and retrieve information at the service of anyone seeking it for any purpose. Librarians are aggregators, interpreters, distributors and educators who help patrons learn, find and solve. Google is a masterful feat of engineering and an excellent way to find certain types of information, but it is not a person, and especially, not one able to help you figure out what exists beyond the first page of search results.
Another curious aspect of life in our suburban, retail and car-based landscape is that there really are few public places to meet, few places where one can hang out without being asked to buy something or asked to leave. Libraries are community gathering places because people need places to gather. Starbucks has built a multi-billion dollar business on this fact, and their 116 locations within the city of San Diego illustrate it.
Sure, there are beaches and sports fields, but neither are conducive to what can go on in a library, like a business meeting, a public service meeting, a club meeting or a job networking meeting; like a concert, an art exhibit, a class, a fund raiser or the after-school homework. To suggest, as Mr. Hemphill does, that special interests promote libraries as gathering places solely as a gimmick to garner tax money, is clever but not true.
Perhaps most importantly, libraries are symbols. They represent the availability of knowledge essential to the health of democracy and a capitalist economy. I say this not just in terms of our national character, but of the community in which we live. Imagine arriving in a city and asking where the libraries are, and someone says, “We don’t have libraries here because we don’t think they’re worth the money. We think people should buy their own information off the internet. We call this individual freedom.” Would you live in this city? Would you raise your children in this city or want to live with the people who live in this city? You would think you have arrived in a very strange place. You have.
In his zeal to convince us that this strangeville is taxpayer nirvana, Mr. Hemphill has done himself, and his readers, a disservice. It’s too bad, because he is not wrong in questioning the shenanigans surrounding the building of the new central library. Nor, do I suspect, would readers mind learning more about libertarian values.
But the biggest lapse in his argument is found in his voiceofsandiego.org bio which says he is a graduate of the Naval Academy and a retired naval officer. This means he was probably the recipient of a free college education, courtesy of the taxpayer and is probably now the recipient of a taxpayer provided pension.
Apparently, there’s at least one libertarian taking taxpayer subsidized services from the government when it suits his own needs. Oh well, like I said, it’s every man for himself in libertarian America.
Bob Stein lives in University City.