Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

3.31.2010

Socialist Propaganda, Part II


Unshelved

A colleague's recent Facebook status was: I'm completely opposed to public libraries charging any fee for checking out any materials. Goes against the core of being *public*. It stirred up some good discussion, including some who argued that minor charges for a few services are no big deal and necessary in tight economic times. One line of reasoning:

Don't think of it as a fee, think of it as an "extended convenience." Set a standard rental setup for items & then only charge for special privileges, such as shorter wait times coupled with shorter rental times, etc.

My initial comment:

Parents can hire tutors and the like, but imagine if schools offered an "extended convenience" for parents to pay teachers to spend extra time with their students during class. Sure, the teachers will teach a general lesson to everyone, but then spend the last half of each period focused in on their "paying customers."

Or police who patrolled all neighborhoods and responded to all calls, but spent extra time and responded more quickly to those who paid for a little bonus protection. Or ditto the fire department.

Wealth grants privilege in almost every aspect of our society, but libraries are supposed to be one of a few places where true equality reigns regardless of income or means. Equal access to all. If we don't have that, we're no longer a free library in a democratic society, but some blend that merely reinforces inequality and oppression. It destroys our very nature and mission.

That's perhaps a little over dramatic, but it's my opinion.

I don't want to do too much stealing of other people's words so I won't share responses, but you can guess some of it based on . . .

My second comment:

I think it’s absolutely a philosophical discussion about different philosophical starting points. I’m not concerned with whether some libraries are happily doing it, but whether it’s *right* to do so.

You can try to convince a vegan it’s OK to eat a limited amount of local, small-scale, organic meat, but if they do so they won’t meet my definition of vegan. You can try to convince someone pro-life it’s OK to have an early term abortion, but if they have one they won’t meet my definition of pro-life. You can try to convince a feminist that polygamy is acceptable, but a man with three wives doesn’t meet my definition of feminist. And you can try to convince me that public libraries should charge for services, but if they do so they won’t meet my definition of a public library.

You can call the police analogy hyperbolic, but I think it’s exactly what we’re talking about here. In that instance everyone gets basic police protection, just those who pay extra get better police protection. In what you’re talking about everyone gets basic library service, just those who pay extra get better library service.

And you nailed it exactly in talking about the school analogy—parents can pay for a different education experience with a *private* school. Just like citizens can have a different library experience at a *private* library. I’ve tried that; it’s called Redbox. We’re talking about *public* institutions here. In a public school students with special needs get IEPs and special attention, but that’s based not on money but on need. Those parents pay nothing extra and the option to buy more teacher attention doesn’t exist. Financial means has nothing to do with it.

I’m going to use some loaded language here, but I understand our public police, schools, et al—including public libraries—to be a type of socialist system meant to encourage equal opportunity and social justice. Everyone contributes according to their means—some much more than others—for an equal share of the services. It is sharing and a redistribution of wealth.

If it wasn’t we’d have some kind of graduated privilege system. Since, in our case, people primarily pay for the library through property taxes, we could do something like: for every $100,000 value of your property, you get 1 bonus DVD checkout per day and get to jump 10 people in each waiting list. So someone with a million dollar house gets to jump 100 on those bestseller lists and people who live in cheap rentals have to go to the back of the line. That’s just a formalizing of what you’re proposing, isn’t it?

You could say that takes out the factor of choice, but, again, that’s not the way our public system is set up. You can’t opt out of school taxes just because you don’t have kids, you can’t opt out of road taxes just because you don’t have a car, you can’t opt out of police protection just because you hire private security, etc. Public libraries don’t just tend toward sharing and redistribution of wealth, they require it. That did not haphazardly develop in response to tough economic times, it was an intentional choice based on a very particular set of values about equality and equal opportunity. If people agree their libraries need more funding for DVDs or additional bestsellers, they should use the system in place and agree on a tax increase. Whether paying at checkout or paying through taxes they’re still paying, just one method is based on “me” and one on “we.”

I’m normally all about shades of grey, but when you conflate the public and private systems as you’re proposing you’re disintegrating the foundational principles of public libraries and making them into something else.

And if you’re wondering why I argue this so passionately, it’s because the issue not only speaks to core library values but also my own. Librarian isn’t just an occupation for me it’s a large part of my identity, so any erosion of what I understand libraries to be feels like an attack on *me.*

(If you’re wondering how I see fines/fees in all of this, they are not a payment for an extra service but restitution to the community for abusing the agreed-upon system and using more than your fair share.)

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