Here in Oakland, a citywide budget shortfall is hitting our libraries in ways that are tough to read about; 90 percent staffing cuts and full floor closures at main locations, and the complete shuttering of community branches, including the Cesar Chavez branch, the Chinatown branch, and the African American Museum & Library of Oakland. Unless drastic measures are taken, Oakland’s first Asian-American mayor will preside over a city with a Chinese collection behind locked doors.
As cities across the nation yank funding from their school and public libraries to fill budget gaps, there’s been chatter of how the internet is killing libraries — and, perhaps, making them irrelevant. This doesn’t sit right with me, not just for the obvious point that the internet and a library are two very different things, but for the implication that the internet is the library’s first natural predator. Really?
So, I asked an expert: my mother. Barbara Jean Walsh ran libraries in small towns and schools across the nation — libraries in which I grew up — for about two decades, before leaving the field in frustration in the early ’90s. The story she tells, of top-down funding mismanagement and small-town libertarianism, has stark parallels in today’s fights for the safety net. It’s a story in which communities of color have the most to lose, and are the first to suffer.
What does a library really face in its fight to bring information equity to its community, and how does it work as part of the safety net? Here’s what my mom told me.
I have very mixed feelings about the role of libraries, to this day. However, I can say this without a doubt: the most important thing that we were doing at my library in Clifton, Arizona, in the ’70s, was our literacy classes. That’s stayed with me so strongly — it was a very small, very poor mining town, and we were the only place where our Latino population could come in and learn English. Women especially, women whose husbands were very clear that their wives didn’t need to be literate. We had a woman named Maria, who was determined to read and write. She would come in — she would come in black and blue, and bloody. Sometimes her husband would call us, to say, Maria is not coming to the library today.
And it used to tear me apart, to think that — I don’t remember when I couldn’t read and write. I still wish I had a tenth of Maria’s courage.
For me, that was a very valid role for the library, because we were being the bridge. We were doing the appropriate thing to give everyone access. That library was a horrible library, you know, if you judged it by the lists of books. But it was a great library if you judged it in terms of the safety net. We made partnerships with other agencies in town; we had a community room that was always busy; we had day care, we had after school programs. We got a grant to do games and activities, and we spent it on a pingpong table – that’s a game – and a sewing machine – that’s an activity. We worked extensively with kids, so that they would come to the library, so that it would be a place for them. We worked with the county to help answer people’s questions about social services and help them get referrals. That library had incredible resources that weren’t the books, because it had incredible community ownership.
Seward, Nebraska, in the ’80s, was a very different situation. The city council really didn’t understand why their money should go to a library, because they weren’t part of the economic community that used the library. So I was in the position, every funding cycle, of — not even of asking for money. Of having to defend the very idea of public libraries! They’d ask me a question like What did you do with the books we gave you money for last year? We had a book about the moon from the first half of the century, that showed the moon with active volcanoes on the cover, and no money to replace it. Or, Why don’t these people just buy their own books? They’d walk in, see people reading, and think, Why should my taxes pay for them to just sit around and read?
This is the same city government that let the employees at Planned Parenthood’s free health clinic be harassed out of town, because the local doctors said that they were losing business. This was rural Nebraska in the Reagan years, and they didn’t understand anything that didn’t make money — and honestly, a library is a pretty socialist enterprise.
And from what I saw, money was what brought down libraries. That was the big shift in the late 1970s. Libraries couldn’t depend on taxes, and had to make themselves look viable to regional funding agencies that didn’t know anything about their communities. They had to compete with each other for grant money for things they didn’t want to do, just to keep their doors open. Cities would base librarian salaries on state averages, which meant that a retired woman taking minimum wage to save funds was unintentionally setting the same salary for me, a single mom with student loans.
The employees and the patrons lost their say, and as a result, libraries changed; either they became babysitters, competing for funds by doing whatever some manager at a funding agency thought best, or they became warehouses with a scanner and a security guard. And this was all well underway long before the internet.
Libraries don’t need to be daycare centers to have community value, to be part of the safety net. Libraries are already, naturally, a part of the safety net, because they empower their community with equitable access to knowledge. And libraries can’t do that without librarians — someone who knows their collection, who knows their patrons, who has the right training and the right salary. Someone who has compassion, and the financial and social resources to act on that compassion without losing their mind.
They also can’t do it without communities. If a community doesn’t feel ownership of its library, it’s going to go away. And if the people at the city and the county aren’t made to understand a library’s value for the community, they’re not going to fund it. It breaks my heart that libraries have to be fought for, that their role and their potential isn’t known by heart by everyone. But that’s where we are. If we want to keep our libraries, our libraries need champions.
Photos: my mother and I at home in Seward, Nebraska in 1984; a 1983 "Kids News" newsletter about Dungeons and Dragons, written by local Seward 10- to 12-year olds and published by the local library.