Are Libraries in a Slow Decline?
As a library worker, advocate, and lover, I am so focused on the everyday workings of libraries that it can be hard to raise my head and look around, much less lift my perspective above the clouds to survey the so-called “big picture.” Yet when I do that, a consistent question pops up that concerns the future of libraries: Are they in a slow decline?
Now, at this point you should imagine a buzzer going off in your head! Not because the answer is a resounding no, but because we’re asking about the future of libraries in a preposterous way; here we are, library workers and library lovers providing and experiencing the outstanding benefits of libraries every day and we wonder whether they’re in decline? It’s absurd.
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Asking “Are libraries in a slow decline?” is like asking whether shoes are going away. Most people wear them, most people like them, shoe companies keep improving them, we keep buying them. Nobody asks whether or not we’ll have shoes in 50 years. So why ask this question about libraries? One reason is the societal pressures institutions like libraries have always faced, and do so even more now — the insidious anti-commons hypocrisy and cultural warfare that seeks to curtail public resource sharing and free speech rights.
Libraries are not in decline, but they are not without an assortment of enemies trying to spread virulent narratives against them. Technocrats seeking to dismantle physical collections and then privatize the digital commons, anti-government fundamentalists (anti-taxxers, I call them) aiming to thin government services (like libraries) into ineffective wisps but with no sensible replacement, and, worst of all, cultural fascists who target free information access and attempt to cut it down to their crooked moral proclivities. These enemies threaten libraries through the municipal and federal budget process, the media machine, and public (and individual) attacks on librarians whose job it is to build and maintain collections.
The battle lines between library supporters and these fondrooks are drawn and re-drawn with each tax or bond measure, book challenge, and idiotic opinion piece in a public forum. So what do we do? We don’t back down. We aggressively promote the well-being of our communities brought about by libraries, we respond politely but forcefully to lies peddled by haters, and we vote and encourage those we know to vote on the right side of library issues, because while libraries are most certainly not in decline, there is no guarantee of their perpetual existence.
The fragility of our human social and political systems is highlighted again and again by powerful but short-sighted politicians. It is up to no one but us, each individual one of us, to protect what we love and push it into the unknowable future with the best possible chances. If you do your part today. libraries will be with us forever.