A tiny rant about paying for civilization

You know what I’m tired of? Techno-utopia-libertarian-Valley types telling me, when they meet me and learn that I’m an honest-to-god MLIS-totin’ librarian, how much they love libraries.

No they don’t. Here is why.

It is a meme, among certain information-savvy technical circles, to respect the ideal of libraries. Libraries represent a particular kind of nerd fantasy and garner respect in this world, librarian stereotypes and imagined book stacks and all. They are often idolized by the science fiction writers that this particular demographic uses as shared cultural touchstones; they are seen as essentially uncontroversial and a good thing. In this start-up tech world, where things like internet search and open content projects and buying things on Amazon is more tangible in people’s daily lives, and actually using libraries is unlikely, nonetheless liking libraries is a nostalgic kind of fan club that is also hipster-cool. When people in this circle meet me they have one of two reactions: a blank stare and a change of conversation, or a delighted squeal, “oh I love libraries!” (They are still typically confused, as is everyone else everywhere, about how someone like me who is a traditionalist could also without any apparent schizophrenia lead a project like Wikipedia, but let’s leave that aside for the moment).

If you love libraries — if you really love libraries — you don’t need to spend your days talking about how great open information is (though it is great) and how much you respect librarians (though that’s cool) or even how you love to read and you believe in literacy for all (hooray, literacy!). What you actually need to do is pay your taxes, and encourage other people to do the same. You need to support paying more taxes, in fact, taxes specifically meant for libraries, because libraries are the first things to get cut when funds are tight — they’re not the fire service, after all, or the cops. And if you really support the library, you also support things like pitching in for better mental health services, and other public spaces like parks, and job training services and all the rest, so that this entire burden of social services does not fall on the shoulders of the library, which often remains as the last bastion of open public space in a community. And you pay your taxes for schools, so they can have enough money that they also have libraries so kids can grow up with the same love you have, and you pay your taxes for higher education, so that they too can maintain the kind of library that I work in — the great big libraries that preserve knowledge for the long-term.

Because here’s the true culture clash for what I will (no doubt unfairly) broadly and stereotypically call the Silicon Valley ethos — to support libraries, you have to support the idea of a strong public sector. The entire point of a public library — and by extent, any public education system — is that we all pitch in a little so we can share in something that’s bigger than what we’re individually able to make. We do so both so it benefits ourselves but also so it can benefit everyone out there who has less than ourselves, because it is both compassionate and in our self-interest to support an educated and stable society.

The individualism of the tech sector — we’re making things for individuals to download so that I individually can make money, and the location and actual physical community around this matters not a whit — is quite opposite to this. This is, as many people smarter than me have commented, perhaps most grossly apparent on the ground in San Francisco, which has many deep-rooted social problems while hosting and celebrating tech culture turmoil. But there are plenty of folks I know in the larger tech culture elsewhere too who lean deeply libertarian — individualistic, every person for themselves — who tell me: I love libraries!

To which I say: write a check, yo. I am sure your local library has a friends society who will appreciate it.

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2 Responses to A tiny rant about paying for civilization

  1. Just checking: If I very explicitly support MORE taxes for libraries despite being mildly libertarian, is it OK to tell you that I LOVE LIBRARIES? ‘Cuz I really do.

  2. phoebe says:

    of course it is ok 🙂 It is ok anyway. I just want people to realize that libraries (like Wikipedia!) do not magically appear from air!

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