Thursday, September 18, 2014

Books or Shiny Objects

I have a bumper sticker on my car that says,

Vote for Libraries

and I wonder these days if I should cover it over till November.  Because I don't want people to think that voting for the upcoming building referendum is the same thing as voting for your library.  Au contraire.

The library has been a heart-rending subject for me over the past several years, as many of you know, since the current director took over and began to run our wonderful Charleston County Public Library into the ground.  After years of cruel and insane state budget cuts, and the retirement of a long-time director and the death of her successor, I believe the board must have been feeling a bit shell-shocked.  And vulnerable to the candidate that told them what they wanted to hear:  "I can make your library better and save you money."  If that sounds familiar, it is because it is the song of the political south.  Long story short, they hired this guy who was once director of the hot-shot Louden County, Virginia, library system, over the acting director, whose smarts and dedication to our library should have made her the natural choice.

He demonstrated his snake-oil charm when he came in to visit the various branches.  He has the ability to make you think he is listening and agreeing, except if you actually think about it afterwards, you can't pinpoint a single point that you made that he agrees with (unless he agreed with it to begin with).  He has used that ability well since he has been here.  He hired a group of consultants and paid them to tell us exactly what he wanted them to; that is, that the library needed to downsize its collection.

In a manner befitting a tyrant, he instructed supervisors that their annual employee reviews were too generous and unacceptable, so that those who were already living far below a reasonable wage were now forced to endure reviews that were obsessively critical.  He instituted an employee chat site, which he could monitor, telling us employees that its purpose was really to bring us together as a group, or some such nonsense.

His coup de grace was the fulfillment of his promise to downsize our collection.  Books that had not been circulated in one year were to be tossed ("weeded").  Further, different branches did not "own" certain holdings based on their size and needs, but instead, books were kept at whichever branch they were returned.  Main Branch is no longer Main Branch in the sense that that is where you once went if you wanted to browse Charleston County's collection.  Smaller branches had to contend with overcrowded shelves and were encouraged to just keep weeding.

Books, music CD's, newspapers and periodicals are being cut, and we are being sold a not-ready-for-prime-time electronic collection in their place.  The bizarre "floating collection" in combination with the severe weeding policy has led to half filled shelves with multiple copies of lesser known newer books and the loss of older titles that are either not "hot" titles, or that just take up too much space.

So I am a fervent library supporter who cannot support what they are jokingly referring to as a library "expansion."

And neither is the Charleston Chamber of Commerce.  Ironically, we are opposing the referendum for totally different reasons, but they come down to the same thing.

It may be important to have more public computers, more meeting rooms and more programs, but in the end that is not what people will be willing to fund.  Without the books, the library will be a community center, and therein lies its vulnerability.  If we no longer need to keep our libraries open so the public can come in to browse and check out its collection, the funding is not going to be there for more and larger buildings.  Libraries experienced phenomenal growth throughout good times and bad (until recently) because they gave people the ability to expand their horizons.  As convenient as it is to place items on hold and then run in and pick them up, when we lose the desire to browse we are losing our ability to discover new things.  When you are reading your newspaper online, you aren't going into the reading room.

It is true that many people use the meeting rooms and computers and attend the programs.  But many more people do not.  We have virtually nothing to show for those big new buildings.  In fact, our virtual library is a shadow of what our once great libraries were.  So when it comes to funding, the public pressure just won't be there.  And that means that the funding we have will continue to erode.

The many thousands of volumes that we have lost in the past several years will not be replaced.  I will not vote for more shiny new buildings without a real commitment to return our library to a growing collection of books, wherein there is depth: older books, important books, classics, books on a range of subjects that may be hard to find.  Libraries were not built to house merely the popular, but the books that we might not ever read without our libraries.


  1. Right on. I, too, am not voting for the Referendum. Libraries mean books to me.

  2. "those big new buildings"

    The newest building was built in the late 1990's. Neither "those" nor "new" in your statement are accurate.