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Why Is One US City Stripping the Word 'Public' from Public Library?

The public library is a uniquely American creation. Now we have to fight to keep it public.

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As I’ve observed, librarians have often stood up to authority when it came to protecting their patrons’ privacy or access to information. When public librarians go to work for companies like LSSI they often lose job protection. It will be much harder for them to take a principled stand when they risk their jobs.

We need to fight the privatization of the public library while at the same time defending and nourishing our existing libraries. Too often the fight to protect libraries starts when the lights are about to go out and when they do not go out we declare a victory even thought there are fewer bulbs and their light is dimmer. Pennies more per day per library user would allow their brilliance to return.

A few weeks ago the nation celebrated National Library Week. You didn’t know? Few did. A search of more than 500 U.S. papers via Nexis came up with only a few dozen news items on the subject. The vast majority consisted of a couple of lines about an event at the local library. At a time when public libraries are fighting for their very existence there was no table pounding, no fiery advocacy, indeed, no fire at all.

In what will undoubtedly be a protracted and bruising fight to expand America’s public libraries in a time of financial distress, librarians themselves should not be expected to take the lead. The public should.

Because most libraries get 90 percent of their funding from local taxes grassroots initiative can have a major impact. When activists have managed to put a library funding measure one the ballot, they usually win. In 2010 some 87 percent of these ballot initiatives were approved across the country.

We need a grassroots effort to defend our public libraries, an effort that can and should be part of a growing nationwide and international effort to defend the public sphere itself. Such efforts have begun.

In Bedford, Texas, after a community-wide petition campaign to oppose library outsourcing gathered 1,700 signatures in four days, city council members voted 4-3 to reject privatization.

In Philadelphia grassroots organizations such as Coalition to Save the Libraries sprang up in 2008 after the city, without a formal vote of the City Council, announced it was going to close 11 library branches. Residents of 9 of the affected neighborhoods plus several city councilors filed suit, citing a 1988 ordinance that no city-owned facility may close, be abandoned, or go into disuse without City Council approval. After two days of hearings packed with library supporters and just hours before the mandated closure, Judge Idee Fox granted an injunction against the closures.

In her ruling Judge Fox made clear the city’s decision was about more than money, “The decision to close these eleven library branches is more than a response to a financial crisis; it changes the very foundation of our City.”

Fort Worth got it wrong. We need to put the PUBLIC back into public library.

David Morris is co-founder and vice president of the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Minneapolis, Minn., and director of its New Rules project.

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