Advocacy: public library as amenity and necessity

Lorcan 4 min read

Downward pressure on the cost of public services creates issues for public libraries. A growth in advocacy is a natural response, and this in turn creates pressing questions about value, and in particular about how different stakeholders potentially perceive value differently. Who one is addressing, and with what message, has become very important.

These topics were addressed in a strongly worded article about public libraries from Christopher Caldwell in The Financial Times last week. It appeared under the provocative – although misleading – title “It is the fate of libraries to die“. The context is the public debate around library cutbacks and closures in the UK.

He opens by referring to recent arguments for public libraries by author Zadie Smith, and suggests that her advocacy is misdirected. He characterizes the issue as follows:

Libraries are imperilled for a different reason: because local councils feel they have better things to do with the money. This winter, Keith Mitchell of Oxfordshire county council, discussing the possibility of closing 20 of 43 local libraries, warned that if the libraries were not cut, something else would be, “and that will most likely be elderly care, learning difficulty care and care for people with mental health problems because those are the biggest bits of our budget”.

Caldwell has some harsh thing to say about public libraries. He calls them ‘reactionary’ for limiting borrowing rights to local residents. He asserts that “like the military sector, the library sector confounds every attempt to make it more efficient”.

He suggests a parallel with a general government dynamic: “In olden times, people wanted a state that built great monuments, even at the price of being distant. Nowadays, people prefer a state that is intimate and therapeutic, one that will solve the practical problems of day-to-day life.” Libraries are often monumental, but answer the needs of the individual. Although he presents this as an issue, I would see it as more of an achievement. Libraries have married the civic and the intimate in successful ways.

One might argue with his perceptions about public libraries, but this is less important than his main point about influencing funding decisions. In asking what makes libraries so hard to defend against cuts, he turns to an article by Eleanor Jo Rodger in American Libraries, Public Libraries: necessities or amenities. I have discussed the value of other work by Rodger in these pages, and Caldwell calls this a ‘magnificent essay’.

Rodger starts in a similar place. As public funding is reduced, public library funding will also be reduced as “there simply isn’t enough money to go around”. She repeats the important point I highlighted in the earlier post, that local government decisions will reflect their understanding, not ours.

She briefly reviews the ‘justification’ language of public libraries in the US, noting the founding educational impulse, the association of that with books and reading, support for an educated citizenry, and then a ‘right to information’ agenda. However, she suggests that there is currently a ‘fuzzy mix of language about importance, equity and use’ used in support of public library budgets.

She then introduces the distinction between ‘necessities’ and ‘amenities’ that appealed to Christopher Caldwell. Necessities are those things to which we have a right because they are seen to be centrally socially valuable. For example, fire and police services are justified by an appeal to the right of public safety. Amenities are those things to which we don’t believe we have a right, but which we may prefer are provided by local government because there are economies of scale in such general provision. Garbage collection is an example here.

In several very interesting paragraphs, Rodger then discusses how public library services may be seen to be both important amenities and valued necessities. For example, equity of access to information in mixed or low-income communities may be seen as a necessity. However, she suggests that most uses for most users tend to fall in the amenities category.

She then uses this distinction to talk about advocacy. Library users, she suggests, may be mobilized to advocate for the public library as amenity. On the other hand, she suggests that library supporters – who may not necessarily use the library – may believe in the transformative role of public libraries. They can be mobilized as advocates for the library as necessity, providing homework help or business information for local entrepreneurs.

Caldwell concludes his article with a recommendation for public library advocates: “As a matter of politics defending amenities may work better than defending necessities”. This is in contrast to the transformative arguments advanced by Zadie Smith, Philip Pullman and others which defend the library as necessity.

He doesn’t really say why he thinks this is so, or how he thinks different arguments play in council corridors. (Indeed, the overall continuity of the article seems interrupted in several places, as if it were shortened from a longer piece.)

It was interesting to see the issue discussed in this way in the pages of The Financial Times. It was also interesting to be referred again to Eleanor Jo Rodger. Her article emphasises the need to understand the motivations of those who make decisions about library funding, presents an interesting framework for characterizing library value, and notes how effective advocacy will depend on mobilising different groups depending on the values which are important to them.

p.s. Rodger notes the work of my OCLC colleagues on creating support for public library funding in the US, From awareness to funding. This emphasises the need to target messages to particular segments, and also notes that those who most strongly support the library believe in its transformative role. This report influenced the subsequent Geek the Library library advocacy framework.

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