Many people yearn for the return of American manufacturing. Other people correctly point out that manufacturing is never coming back. The latter argue that we need to focus on creating new jobs, new kinds of jobs, and they point to the modern tech industry for this.
But the tech industry isn’t a present-day equivalent of our bygone manufacturing economy. It can’t replace it.
Consider: In the ’50s, a man who never finished high school could get a job working a factory line, and that job paid enough for them to raise a family and own a home. Nothing much, no frills, but a decent quality of life. They could learn new skills on the job and advance to more skilled positions. They could have a career and retire in some comfort.
Name one job in today’s tech industry that you can get without a high school diploma. Name one tech job that you can get without a college degree.
In my post about hatred the other day, I mentioned my life motto: “I am human: nothing human is alien to me.” (In the Latin, “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.”)
And all at once it strikes me—this is why I have always loved libraries.
Libraries give me access to the full depth and breadth of humanity. All of our thoughts and ideas, our hopes and dreams, our fears, our creativity and cultures, our histories, our plethora of worldviews and philosophies and beliefs.
All our stories.
I can access all of this through my library. If my library doesn’t have it on the shelf, they can find it and get it for me.
Libraries are where I go to learn how to be human, in all our myriad aspects.
I first read this in a book by Isaac Asimov when I was in grade school. It wasn’t until college that I learned that this is an English translation of the Roman writer Terence. It remains one of the most powerful sentences I’ve read. If any single idea serves as my deepest moral code, it’s this.
I even made it the subtitle of this blog.
To me, this statement defines my responsibility to try and understand. All human feeling, all human thought and action, should be comprehensible to me. If human nature is capable of encompassing it, I should be able to relate to it. No matter how dark or twisted, no matter how bright or saintly—if it’s human, then by definition it shouldn’t be alien to me.
One of my goals this year is to participate more in professional conversations and debates. For me, this means getting more active on Twitter. That’s where I keep track of most of my professional connections.
This past week saw my first forays in that direction.
There’s a quote from Donny Miller that has become ubiquitous among information professionals:
“In the age of information, ignorance is a choice.”
There have been several reports over the last few weeks identifying a rise in incidents of hate speech, racist graffiti and slogans, and acts of violence toward members of various minority groups throughout the country. Several libraries have been targeted—books and buildings have been defaced with swastikas, racist, sexist, homo- and transphobic epithets, explicit threats of violence toward minority groups, etc.
Libraries are targets because we stand at the vanguard of promoting inclusion and diversity. We seek to empower the disempowered, to give voice and provide access to all individuals and groups within our community. We hold as a core value that no one be excluded from the tools and services we offer, that no one be silenced or impeded from equal participation in our community. Libraries function as a safe space for anyone who needs it.
Libraries pose a great threat to those who seek to exclude all those who are different from them.
Libraries hold a resolute belief in the freedom of speech and expression. This is fundamental to everything we do. How, then, are libraries supposed to handle incidents of hate speech?
We need diverse books to be sure, but those must be part of a literature that reflects our reality, books in which little black boys push one another on the swings, in which little black girls daydream about working in the zoo, in which kids of every color do what kids of every color do every day: tromp through the woods, obsess about trucks, love their parents, refuse to eat dinner. We need more books in which our kids are simply themselves, and in which that is enough.
A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with a gentleman who insisted that public libraries are going to disappear soon. He voiced the standard arguments about how everything is online now, and how ebooks are going to replace print entirely. His conclusion: libraries are irrelevant in the modern digital age.
Like so many people who take this position, this gentleman personally loves libraries and sees their inevitable passing as a loss to society. It makes him sad to think that there won’t be any more neighborhood libraries (even though he freely admits that it’s been years since he last set foot in his local library).
Of course, I spoke up to correct him. The stats make it very clear that libraries are as relevant to their communities as ever. Public library usage has actually increased with the advent of the digital information age, increased yet more during the recent economic crisis, and popular approval ratings are as high as they’ve ever been and holding steady. I shared all these stats with him. I shared multiple calculations of the economic impact of libraries and the ROI for every tax dollar invested—libraries are the single best public investment most communities can make. I talked about how libraries bolster and expand educational opportunities for kids and adults, citizens and immigrants, and the illiterate. I talked about how libraries can function as neutral gathering places during times of community upheaval. I talked about the library’s role in upholding the freedom of information and expression in our society. I talked about our computer labs and maker spaces and coding sessions and 3D printers and recording studios, our creative writing groups, our book groups, and our art spaces. I talked about our public programming and community discussion forums.
It was so clear to me that this gentleman would be happy to know that libraries are doing very well, adapting more-or-less adeptly to changing circumstances as they’ve always done, and they remain well-used and beloved by their communities.