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Weblog Entry for 28 August 2002

Lew Rockwell has written a column in favor of privatizing off the public library system, and Jim Henley is (sadly) taking it seriously. First claim — “most public libraries suck”:

Rockwell: Well, you know what? Many public libraries have been a disgrace for decades. Like most public institutions, they are architectural monstrosities. They have terrible hours, which they blame on underfunding. Their selection is often severely limited, vacillating between being out of date and carrying only the latest, tackiest bestsellers. Others have gradually purged all books that offer ideas the ruling regime rejects.

This may be true in Auburn, Alabama, where Rockwell lives, but it isn’t here in New York. We’ve got libraries in beautiful buildings, with pretty good selections. The hours could certainly be better, I admit, but did you notice the slimy way Rockwell implies that there’s some other cause for this than inadequate funding, without actually suggesting any other explanation?

Now Jim:

Henley: Certainly the selection at your average public library compares poorly with the selection at your average Borders.

Certainly I wouldn’t expect to find a copy of Damon Knight’s The Futurians at my local Borders. They might have a full set of the Anchor Bible, which I used to dig up support in an argument I was having years ago, but I doubt they’d have a full set of the obscure journal (whose name I’ve forgotten — The Journal of Biblical Linguistics?) I used to track down one of the footnotes, which cited an article from (I think) the 1930s.

Here’s Rockwell again:

Rockwell: In an effort to attract more users, they have become the leading distributors of videos, CDs, and DVDs, thereby competing with for-profit businesses and doing so at taxpayer expense. And it was the public libraries, with their computers and net access, that managed to shut down the internet café business of the mid-1990s. With public libraries offering the same services for free, why should anyone pay?

Again, I can judge this only by my own neighborhood in Brooklyn. I live a block from the Central Library of the Brooklyn Public Libary system, and within a few blocks of my home I can find at least four video/DVD rental shops (one of them a Blockbuster, the others independent) and one of those Internet cafés Rockwell doesn’t seem to think exist anymore. And I’ve seen plenty more ’Net cafés around. So far, Rockwell’s essay seems to be less about the problems with public libraries than about the problems with living in a city of only 43,000 people. More evidence:

Rockwell: As for religious libraries, they already exist. Every major religion makes an effort to have a lending system for anyone who shows interest. Take note of why: public libraries don’t stock religious books, for the most part, because they are run by left-liberals.

What? Rockwell should come on over to Brooklyn and check out BPL Central. Great hoards of religious books. In addition to the Anchor Bible series I mentioned above, there are other Bible translations, copies of the Talmud, the Koran, any number of modern books about various religions from any number of viewpoints, and that’s just the stuff I’ve looked up personally over the years. Browsing the catalog over the ’Net, I found the Bhagavad Gita, the Mabinogion, the Analetics of Confucius, and books on Sufiism before I got tired of looking. But here’s the worst part of Rockwell’s argument:

Rockwell: Private libraries are not subject to the crazy political controversies that constantly afflict public libraries. Should public-library computers be able to access porn and hate sites? Should they carry Mark Twain? Shouldn’t they have a section designed only for blacks? What about gays and lesbians, who pay taxes to support the libraries. Why shouldn’t their interests be observed as well? But that offends other people who similarly pay for libraries.

Porn and hate sites? Sure, why not? We’ve got this thing called the First Amendment here in America. Mark Twain? Again, sure, why not? A section designed only for blacks? What the hell does that mean? Why should any section of a public library be “only for” any one group? Most NYC libraries have a childrens’ section, but it’s not only for children; adults can browse and borrow from there as well. And children can borrow from the rest of the library, if their parents are willing to get them a full-access libary card. (At least, that’s how it worked at my local library in the Bronx when I was a kid.)

What about gays and lesbians? What sensible person would be offended at the interests of gays and lesbians being observed, whatever that means? Have you noticed that the main point Rockwell seems to be trying to make is that it’s impossible for people of differing political views to get along sensibly? With the implication that we should all just stop trying, retreat to our little privately-owned walled communities, and shut down the institutions that make us a nation and a culture, as opposed to just a bunch of tribes operating under strained truces? I felt dirty just reading this.

Via Boing Boing, a NY Times story about the Shop 2000, an 18-foot-wide vending machine in Washington with a significant portion of the stock of a convenience store. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Horn & Hardart’s Automat, though that was more a restaurant than a convenience store.

The article quotes on passer-by as saying the Shop 2000 is “Like something from the future!”, but I notice the makers gave it a retro name, evoking the year 2000, a gentler, more naïve, bygone age.

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