Public Libraries Shouldn’t Exist

Imagine that public libraries weren't a normal thing. What would the public debate sound like?

5 min. read

Usually, when I’m at home in Austin, I work in coffee shops. Today, I’m working from our gobsmackingly beautiful public library. And I can’t help but repeatedly ask myself “What would happen if someone pitched the idea of a public library today?”

It’s a broken record in my brain. An audio loop. It plays every time I turn a corner in this space.

“What would it sound like to argue for the idea of a public library in 2019?”

I generally try to spend $10 – $15 whenever I set up camp to work for a few hours in a coffee shop. To pay my share. To ensure my favorite local haunts can compete with Starbucks. To not feel like a burden. I have a monthly “cofficing” budget dedicated to this.

But here it’s different. I came in, found a perfect working space, connected to the wifi, and didn’t spend a dollar.

And that’s where the dissonance hits.

One one hand, of course I didn’t pay. This is a public library. It would be weird to have to pay. But it’s only weird because we’ve accepted the idea of a public library.

On the other hand, the public library, as an idea, today, in modern political discourse, is anything but an of course.

Today, the idea of a public library would be a radical idea. One that would be labeled as “socialist” (with the scary, fear-invoking pronunciation of socialist). Support of public libraries would be a “far left” litmus test — used by supporters and opposers to assess candidates. It would be risky. Even politicians who are advancing socialist causes don’t want to be called “socialists.”

It’s so hard to find a place where you can exist without paying money in 2019.

The phrase “cost of living” comes to mind. We often gloss over how literal it is, how expensive it is to simply be alive. Everywhere I go I need a credit card.

Meanwhile here, in this library — in my library — my wallet has stayed in my pocket. I haven’t even seen a place where I could spend money.

Money mediating every aspect of our life is one of the byproducts of neoliberalism, the political water in which all of us have been swimming for a few decades now (also a buzzy-type word that a lot of people use to mean different things).

Neoliberalism is why it makes sense to pay for childcare, a ride to the airport, help moving your stuff to your new apartment, and more. And why it would now feel weird to expect any of those things to not cost money.

So many parts of our life that a few years or decades ago would have been provided by the commons — you’d ask a neighbor, or a friend — are now things we pay for. And every day new aspects of humanity, relationships, and interpersonal life are being capitalized, commodified, added to our gross domestic product.

I’m not sure what’s more innovative: the apps we use to pay for things we used to count on as communal, or the magic that leads to so many of us applauding it. And forgetting there was ever another way. Forgetting that we didn’t used to pay for this particular dimension of human connection.

And so it’s neoliberalism, at least in part, that makes the idea of a public library feel so insane.

Imagine the idea of a public library hadn’t been invented yet. Or, to make this case even stronger, it had been proposed in the past, but shot down (“Socialism!” “Boot straps!” “Etcetera!”).

Now, in this world we live in (where it’s weirder to ask a friend for a ride to the airport than it is to hire a temporary friend with our phone to drive us), bask in the impossibility of the idea of a public library. I bet you can play it all out in your head. Who would be for it? Who against? What would the debate sound like? What would Fox News say?

I’m not trying to over-emphasize the uniqueness of our current political climate. It’s easier to imagine public libraries never having been invented or normalized at any point in history than it is to imagine them becoming a thing — that is, but for the fact that they did.

This is true for almost every good part of society that we take for granted.

We forget, or are entirely unaware of, the fight that took place to secure it for us. The alternatives. The failed experiments. The 1 in whatever-large-number odds that landed us where we are now. A thousand times over, at a thousand different points in history.

Clean water. Electricity. The internet. Plumbing. Roads. Safe food. Vaccinations. The list goes on.

None of what’s good was guaranteed. It all happened against great odds. Even you being born — yes, you — was an unlikely chance (about 1 in 400 trillion, if you’re counting). And I think it’s good that you were born. I hope you do, too.

And yet, against the odds, here I am. In this space. This beautiful public space. Working at a table that shouldn’t exist, in a building that shouldn’t exist, surrounded by publicly-shared books and technology that shouldn’t exist.

I’m filled with wonder that public libraries exist.

And that there exists so many other artifacts of some past struggle, ideas and works that add beauty to our commons, improving all of our lives.

Especially because they shouldn’t exist.

Because they’d be borderline impossible to defend or rationalize or make sense of. Because they fly in the face of political convention, feasibility, “human nature,” and “the market.”

They are proof that we’re better than we allow ourselves to know. That we can be better than we allow ourselves to be.

Public libraries are miracles. And with that thought, my mind starts spinning with two new questions.

What else shouldn’t exist, but does?

What else shouldn’t exist, that we need to create?