July 14, 2010
Fox News Asks "Is It Time For Public Libraries To Go?"
This item was sent to me a while back by Claire Membiela at the Cooley Law School. It's a report/editorial from Fox Chicago News titled Are Libraries Necessary, or a Waste of Tax Money? The basic premise of the story is that Illinois is in a budget crisis with billions of dollars in debt. How bad is it? The Illinois Legislative Reference Bureau doesn't have the cash to cover postage for mailing out the Legislative Synopsis and Digest. The publication has been issued since 1921 and tracks all bills through the General Assembly. We are referred to the web for PDF versions instead.
Fox didn't focus on this aspect of the crisis. They acknowledge the historical value of libraries and note that 88 million books get borrowed every year in the state (Illinois' population was 12,910,409 as of July, 2009). But, they ask "should these institutions...be on the way out?" Their expose consisted of counting the visitors to the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago noting 300 in an hour. Their point is that most people they say were using the free Internet services and not the bookshelves. Fox would rather see the $120 million the city pays annually to support public libraries go to schools, public transportation, police, or pensions.
Chicago Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey responded, calling the the story's lack of understanding of public libraries "astounding." I have to agree with her. Fox appears clueless as to the purpose of a public library especially in a large urban setting. From her response:
Last year, Chicagoans checked out nearly 10 million items from the Chicago Public Library’s 74 locations and the majority of those items were books. (Your ‘undercover cameras” shots were taken in a series of stacks devoted to bound periodicals used for reference. Next time, try looking at the circulating collections throughout the building.) Especially in times of economic downturn, smart people turn to the public library as their free resource for books, information and entertainment in multiple formats – print, online, in person.
And yes, we proudly provide free access to the internet because so much information today is found online, something you should know from your own work. In fact, the Chicago Public Library provided 3.8 million free one hour Internet sessions to the people of Chicago in 2009. The Internet has made public libraries more relevant, not less as your story suggests. There continues to exist in this country a vast digital divide. It exists along lines of race and class and is only bridged consistently and equitably through the free access provided by the Chicago Public Library and all public libraries in this nation. Some 60 percent of the individuals who use public computers a Chicago’s libraries are searching for and applying for jobs. We’re proud to continue to be able to use our resources to help them do so.
What Fox is suggesting is not unique to Chicago. Public libraries across the country are feeling the financial heat. While public administrators weigh costs in a recession, it's not time to throw public libraries under the bus. Author Marilyn Johnson wrote thisin the July 6th issue of the Los Angeles Times: "The U.S. is beginning an interesting experiment in democracy: We're cutting public library funds, shrinking our public and school libraries, and in some places, shutting them altogether. * * * We won't miss a third of our librarians and branch libraries the way we'd miss a third of our firefighters and firehouses, the rationale goes … but I wonder." Her whole piece is an excellent description of the value of public libraries and worth reading. She speaks to the service efforts of libraries and librarians beyond the traditional book services that Fox singled out.
My favorite statement in Johnson's piece is "While they help us get online, employed and informed, librarians don't try to sell us anything. Nor do they turn around and broadcast our problems, send us spam or keep a record of our interests and needs, because no matter how savvy this profession is at navigating the online world, it clings to that old-fashioned value, privacy." The private market thrives at providing information over the Internet. Isn't it great, however, to go to a place where multiple logins, fees, and ads aren't intruding every page? Support your local library folks. It does way more than people would think. [MG]
Just to add some more persepective to this, the Governor of South Carolina used the power of the line item veto to veto a portion of the South Carolina State budget that would have gone to keeping public libraries in the counties open. To paraphase his veto message, "Go get funds from the Feds." The South Carolina House and Senate voted to override that veto. And is anyone surprised that Fox or a Fox owned station would oppose funding for public libraries? They probably see it as more "socialism".
Posted by: Robert Oszakiewski | Jul 20, 2010 9:44:33 AM
If you do go and read this article, please take some time to read through the comments from the public. They are overwhelmingly (almost 100%) in support of the Chicago Public Library and in support of taxpayer funds going to support it and its programs. The Fox reporter and her team came to their conclusions after spending a very short time "observing" traffic in one CPL library and observed one floor only (in a 9+ story library). Mary Dempsey's response was fantastic and commentators were totally behind her.
Posted by: Gretchen Van Dam | Jul 15, 2010 9:10:47 AM
We had a similar Fox News report in the Twin Cities a couple of weeks ago. One of our suburban counties floated the possibility of closing a very small community library to help balance their budget. Instead of examining how this would affect the citizens, the news anchor chose to make it a question of whether libraries should be funded in a time of economic crisis. This angle to his interview took the poor town mayor by surprise. He had to defend free access to information instead of presenting his community's response to the proposed closing. Needless to say, the library community here has spoken out in much the same tones as your post.
Posted by: Bunnie Watson | Jul 15, 2010 7:30:38 AM
Although, I loved the Johnson piece, it raised two issues for me. First, smart librarians DO keep a record of patron interests and needs - they just don't sell that information. Second, while libraries do need the public to fight for them, they first need to make sure they are fighting for themselves.
I believe librarians have been getting savvier about the very real need to document their value. (I suspect law firm libraries probably have a lot to teach their academic colleagues on this topic.)
Yes, libraries cost money, but there is a return on that investment. As a former Chicagoland public librarian, I look back proudly on all the people whose lives I helped make better in the course of my work. One of my favorite memories is the man just diagnosed with macular degeneration who told me I had provided more information about resources available to help him cope with his loss of sight than a company to which he had paid several hundred dollars for information.
Posted by: Karen Wallace | Jul 15, 2010 6:46:11 AM
Hi, I commented on this piece on my blog a couple of weeks ago and whilst no fan of Fox and it's political leanings I think you are being a bit disengenous. Nowhere in the piece does the journalist or Fox as a network say it would rather see the $120 million the city pays annually to support public libraries go to schools, public transportation, police, or pensions. I'm sorry, but it doesn't. It debates the question of ‘do we still need public libraries’, and whilst in doing so asks would the money that goes to libraries be better spent on education, the transport authority, the police etc., nowhere does it is say, 'yes we should'. I do agree the undercover filming bit is shoddy journalism however.
Posted by: scott | Jul 15, 2010 3:13:23 AM