Peak Libraries: Developing Sensitivity to Future Consequences
Insensitivity to future consequences is an identified behavioral aberration experienced by people who have experienced traumatic brain injuries to the cerebral cortex (Franck, 1995). Though perplexing and disruptive, at least there is some explanation for the actions of those who suffer this affliction. There is no such biological explanation for the shortsighted and damaging behaviors affected by those responsible for the stewardship of public library and museum programs, particularly in Florida. Florida’s plight, which is duplicated in states and municipalities nationwide, presents a particularly tragic case as the consequences of defunding important cultural and social programs may easily be foreseen.
Parallels may be drawn between the “gas crisis” and the “library crisis.” For more than twenty years, since the administration of President Ronald Reagan, patrons and employees of museums and libraries have dealt with increased funding shortfalls and budget and staff cuts in pretty much the same way as the general population has dealt with the current petroleum crisis: by complaining, and doing nothing else. Until recently, drivers griped about gouging at the gas pump and kept buying Hummers. Librarians and museum curators long bemoaned the crumbling cultural infrastructure (Klein, 2007). Through 2006 and 2007 commuters continued to drive exactly as much as always, and since 1984, library administrators have also continued, with respect to the lack of public funding for collections and facilities, to commiserate with colleagues and at library conferences, and perhaps most damagingly, to continue to rely on the personal integrity and client focus of library staffers to maintain the high level of productivity and professionalism associated with librarianship.
With gasoline, the question the past few years has been: How expensive would gas have to get before it actually began to affect driving habits? Would two dollars per gallon be the point at which motorists said, “Enough is enough, I am going to drive less!”? No. Two dollars came and went and the only thing that changed was the amount of complaining, which went up. Three dollars a gallon, then? No. Demand for gasoline did not go down. Four dollars?!
Finally, four dollars was the tipping point at which gas prices created a degree of public outrage concerted enough to actually cause action: Driving is down, mass transit use up, peak oil is acknowledged, politicians agree that maybe it would be a good idea after all to drill in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida’s coast.
Yet what will be the moment of combustion when it comes to the dismantling of our public, school, academic, and museum libraries? In January 2003, then-Florida Governor Jeb Bush proposed the closing of the Florida State Library and laying off its fifty-plus employees, a petty retributive gesture against retiring library administrator Barratt Wilkins’s disagreement with many Bush policies. Librarians at the Tampa Bay Library Consortium (and support staff also) have been laid off in 2008 even as more systems rely on connected services and collections. Public librarians have been laid off throughout the state of Florida. As the University of South Florida prepares for the reaccredidation process for the School of Library and Information Sciences, course offerings are diminished and the prestigious graduate assistant program is able to accept fewer qualified candidates. However no one would know this from the silence of librarians and library students on email list serves, blogs, and in the conventional news media. What will it take for these capable communicators to make their voices heard and rise to action?
Having introduced a comparative scenario and a few examples of a critical issue facing libraries and indeed cultural history, I will review just a few possible actions – some cannot really be called agreeable solutions – to the problem faced by libraries, which amounts to major economic problems exacerbated by fear, denial, and resistance to cooperative collaborations.
Avoiding Corporate Sponsorships
At first recollection, one of the most successful alliances in American library history was 2001’s “@ The Library” campaign, a sponsorship arranged by the American Library Association and underwritten by Major League Baseball (ALA News, 2001). Though MLB still claims on its promotional literature to be a “major sponsor of the Campaign for Literacy,” in fact no significant joint activities between ALA and MLB have taken place since 2004. MLB gets the good public relations while ALA’s public division gets nothing and its administrators say nothing publicly about an industry in which a single player’s annual salary could fund a small system for several years.
There is actually a case history of how, and why, corporate sponsorships of public agencies are not necessarily symbiotic relationships as they present practical as well as ethical problems. Beginning in 1995, Archer Daniels Midland, the agribusiness megacorporation, began funding programs on both National Public Radio and through the Public Broadcasting Systems, most notably NPR’s All Things Considered and PBS’s acclaimed News Hour With Jim Lehrer (Solomon, 1998). ADM provided as much as $24 million a year for News Hours’s production. In spring of 2008, ADM announced that, as a result of (among other things) Lehrer’s unfavorable reportage on ADM’s factory farm, genetic patenting, and general business practices, it would terminate its fourteen-year tradition of underwriting the show. Owing to its reliance on this corporate stipend, News Hour is now in great peril of cancellation (Anonymous, 2008).
Public libraries and museums are supposed to be open repositories of openly available information, some of which invariably offends some people, and the ethical ramifications of accepting funding from corporations is obvious, and will not be discussed at length here, but seriously, who could trust a library whose collection was underwritten by Monsanto, Halliburton, or Philip Morris?
One suggestion is that libraries and museums actively court not corporations but individuals who have done very well indeed owing to the exposure they have received, and credibility they have attained, by having their work displayed in and promoted by cultural institutions (Brewster, 2008). Instead of selling honorary T-shirts fêting the Whitney Biennial through the Gap, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Marilyn Mintner, Chuck Close, and Kenny Scharf could kick a few million apiece to museums less wealthy than the Whitney. Same for the fantastically rich authors whose work is on constant reserve in every public library in the country – John Grisham, Danielle Steele, Jodi Picoult, and others who don’t receive the acclaim of Umberto Eco or Annie Proulx but who achieve popular fortune largely through libraries (Rogers, 2004) (Malanga, 2004).
Most libraries are slaves to Microsoft and costly database subscriptions, paying a large portion of annual budgets for licensing and having to spend more, year after year, for patches, upgrades, and more Windows software (and now, in Florida, with the emerging uniformity of Polaris) for servers.
What about open source software? Linux has been free (free of charge and free of all known viruses) for years, is easily comprehensible, and enjoys a large and supportive community of freeware enthusiasts (Stratigos, 2003). A library could pay one person a good salary to run an open source IT systems for hundreds of thousands of dollars less, per year, than by continuing to participate in corporate software perpetuation.
The Eschatology Position
There is something else library and museum administrators and staffers can do in the face of the extraordinary rendition of cultural resources in the service of bank bailouts and funding Blackwater: nothing (Foucault, 1997). Not in the same way the members of this profession now do nothing in the way of solidarity actions (or calls to action), but simply by refusing to continue in this manner. If elected and appointed officials as well as voters place zero value on public funding for libraries and museums, then that is the service that will be rendered: zero.
This scenario has played out in other cultural and artistic arenas. Faced with lack of public support and unwilling to kowtow to corporate sponsor demands for endless programs of “popular” fare, in the past ten years, symphonies and orchestras in Fort Lauderdale, Tulsa, Savannah, Colorado Springs, San Jose, and Toledo have simply shut down (Anonymous, 2008). In the past five years, the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana; the Dolls’ House and Toy Museum and the Mary Merritt Doll Museum in Washington, D.C.; and the Terra Museum of American Art in Chicago have all become extinct. Tellingly, Thomas McCormick an art dealer quoted in The New York Times regarding the Terra said, “We’re all more or less guilty for not supporting it … but by next week, will anybody really notice that it’s gone?”
Of course people notice when a library or museum closes, or for that matter when looting and war destroy such an institution. Now there is a public outcry over the destruction and looting of the Iraq national library and museums, just as the world grieves over the destruction of the Bamiyan Valley Buddha statues. Yet each library or museum threatened or imperiled by disaster capitalism is its own unique tragedy. Every lost collection, vestige of visual culture, and shuttered repository is a tragedy not just of the present incalculably to the future.
Certainly organizations such as UNESCO and the Institute of Museum and Library Services – which I realize were to have been the lynchpins of this paper – have performed critical interventions and created dialogues that benefit that patrons and staffers of libraries and museums. Their presence (particularly that of UNESCO in Afghanistan) and voice is creating advocacy for and diminishing the threat to cultural treasures all over the world, no doubt.
However I am as troubled by the death by a thousand budget cuts being suffered, especially locally, by library and museum programs as by some of the more notable international outrages of war and colonialism. As students and librarians-to-be we have learned that being agreeably quiet does not save programs or jobs, so this should remove the “but I’ll get in trouble” obstacle to becoming activated and mobilized. I am not certain that any level of action can, at this time, turn our culture around, but I hope librarians will be noted in histories as people who spoke up, acted out, and behaved to the last second as if the future depended upon them.
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