Once upon a time, the public library was an idler's paradise, and a pretty good spot for misanthropes too. Reading was encouraged but not required. Sleeping was tolerated as long as you didn't snore too loudly. Silence was the only mandate. “Come inside!” the library beckoned to every shiftless soul in this busy land. “Make yourself at home on our hard institutional chairs. Thumb the latest Grisham. Scour spools of microfiche for 1942's least important news. Purpose and productivity are not required here.”
Then, the economy tanked and government penny-pinchers started questioning the long-held belief that free access to yoga DVDs and The South Beach Diet help ensure a vital democracy. In California, Governor Jerry Brown wants to eliminate the $30.4 million the state sprinkles on its 1,116 public libraries each year and leave their financing entirely up to local municipalities. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to cut $40 million from the public library system's $260 million annual budget. In 2009 and 2010, 15 percent of the nation's 9,221 public libraries reduced their operating hours as a result of diminishing state and local revenues.
To convince their benefactors that they're still relevant in an era when information has never been so cheap and accessible, public libraries now cast themselves as the utilitarian triage centers of the Great Recession, the places where the jobless go to explore new career paths, master new skills, hone their resumes. They also tout their status as vibrant hubs of community, the noisiest places in town: Laughter yoga, Wii bowling for teens, exercise classes for older adults, and performances by four-piece jazz bands are just some of the activities the New York Public Library now offers alongside more traditional library pursuits like leafing through old copies of People or glowering at the person who's turning pages too loudly one table over.
Oh, sure, not everyone goes to the library to bone up on their Excel skills or try their luck at speed-dating events. In America's most esteemed citadels of intellectual loitering, at least a few patrons remain committed to the idea that careerist strategizing and strengthening community ties through a shared love of, say, knitting, have no place in the library. In two recent articles, for example, the New York Post reports that both “dirty old men” and giggling 13-year-olds alike use the city's libraries to view Internet porn. In Cincinnati, arrests have dropped by nearly 40 percent at the Hamilton County Public Library's downtown branch — where the impromptu literary discourse that takes place among the stacks is apparently so robust a 20-person security staff and more than 55 security cameras are required to maintain order.
In addition, if the library gets too noisy with toddler sing-a-longs, too frenetic with septuagenarians doing light calisthenics, there's always the calm, contemplative sanctum of Starbucks. At thousands of stores around the country, the WiFi's free, the workspaces are clean and uncluttered, and the coffee is piping hot long before any public library opens its doors in the morning and long after it shuts them at night.
But while Starbucks offers a more than adequate haven for loafers and loners who no longer feel at ease in the new purposeful, community-oriented library, it lacks the library's symbolic power. As America grew increasingly industrialized, structured and strapped for time, the public library served as tangible proof that we had not lost sight of the value of sitting quietly in a still, somber room for hours on end, that we understood the benefits of intellectual sauntering with no explicit agenda to guide us, that we even believed out-and-out idleness was a virtue — in fact, we valued these things so much we made every citizen subsidize grand marble palaces in which to pursue them! Now, all that's changing. The new library strives to prove its ability to impart introductory Excel skills to job-seekers in the midst of career transitions. Is such a practical institution really worth renewing?
Now That We Have Starbucks, Do We Really Need Libraries Any More?
Do they even have coffee in there?