As is to be expected, public libraries across the State are mobilizing to protest California Governor Jerry Brown's proposal to eliminate all State funding to support local public library services. As an indicator of the level of concern, my earlier blog posts attempting to explain the impact of these cuts received far and away more hits than anything else I have written.
While like all of my colleagues I am concerned about the impact of the proposed cuts, I am also concerned that all too often our message has a "motherhood and apple pie" flavor that might be more reflective of our own beliefs and aspirations than the perceptions of people outside the library community (and by library community I mean not only librarians and others who work in libraries, but Friends of the Library groups, other library supporters, and our regular users).
Last week, for example, Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters wrote about the cuts to library funding. The article is a good overview of the history of State funding for libraries, but what was of more interest to me were comments. Interspersed with many comments about the value of libraries were statements such as these:
"Many libraries are now seeing as much as 50% of their circulation in Videos. Given that Netflix, Amazon, and dozens of other sources are now making video materials available on-line--why should the taxpayers get stuck with paying for the entertainment of the few people who don't want to pay for these materials themselves."
"Public libraries currently consume about $12B nationally, and perhaps $1.2B-$1.5B in California. Most of this money is spent paying library staff to act as "hall monitors", or to move paper around the building (stacking, restacking, ordering, etc.) This is a massive waste of public money, as fewer and fewer people are actually reading books from public libraries. The cost of ebook readers is now getting down to the $100/unit range, so it becomes a better use of public funds to simply give away the readers, and let people buy their own e-books"
"Libraries have become a haven for the homeless to hang around during the day and especially when bad weather occurs."
What struck me about these comments was not that they are totally off base, but that in fact there is at least a grain of truth in all of them...the very grains of truth that likely led Governor Brown to think that eliminating State funding for libraries is an acceptable move in the face of overwhelming budget pressures. What worries me is that, true believers that we are, the library community may dismiss or disregard these points of view rather than really listening to what these people are trying to say...and not just so we can tell them how wrong they are.
The thought that we need to be careful not to let our desire to "make our case" overrun the need to take on board legitimate criticism has been niggling away at me since the budget discussion has heated up. Today I found a great articulation of why this is important - not in a library publication but in a Harvard Business Review blog post called Ten Things You're Not Allowed to Say at Davos shared by George Needham on Viral Optimism earlier today.
George notes that the all 10 things that HBR guest blogger Umar Haique identifies as needing to be discussed would make a heck of a library conference topic, and I agree, but I was particularly struck by #6:
"Your Mom tends to tell you what you want to hear.
Davos loves diversity — as long as said diversity doesn't carry the terrifying prospect of actually generating perspectives that question the primacy of the obsolete, crumbling paradigm known as industrial age capitalism. But here's the thing: especially in a time when your fundamental assumptions are breaking, it's probably your fiercest critics — not your compatriots — who have the sharpest, most resonant insights."
I wonder which of our most cherished beliefs about the value of libraries are, when seen by an outsider, an "obsolete, crumbling paradigm"? If we don't, as Mr. Haque suggests, listen to our fiercest critics and not our compatriots, we risk not just telling the wrong stories but doing the wrong things with consequences that are greater than the loss of $30 million in funding.