As I mentioned previously, there are a few reasons I wanted to start this blog. Here are the big three:
(1) I wanted to learn more about why people use libraries. What is it about the space and place of a library that draws people in?
(2) I wanted to explore and examine Chicago because it is a fascinating place with a compelling and complex history.
(3) I wanted to advocate for public institutions. Because of neoliberal ideologies, public (and many private) institutions are under attack.
So, let’s start with the last one first. Bare with me…I will write about the second two in “West Town Branch: Day 15, Part 2”
Advocating for Public Institutions
Neoliberalism can be understood as a set of economic philosophies stretching back to 1700–1900 classical capitalism re-contextualized to the post-WWII and post-New Deal era (In the United States, at least). It seems to have sparked as a contra-communist approach to economics in the mid-Cold War years. As the world markets globalized rather quickly, free-market factors extended in new ways. For example, corporations played a reformed role in the organization of international trade and hierarchical national relationships. Whereas imperial structures of the colonial era “dissipated” in Africa and Asia in the 1960’s, corporate interests did not. Thus, the post-colonial contexts of Africa and Asia fell under the rule of foreign economies, not necessarily rule by foreign governments. This world-wide “laissez-faire” sentiment essentially means that any inequity in economics was sure to remain, since the free-market would sustain competition between unequal parties. Therefore, a competition that is already stacked against the poor and marginalized would never be righted through a free-market.
What does this have to do with me visiting libraries? We are in a moment in which neoliberalism is at its height. In particular, this can be evidenced by the president’s recent budget recommendations. While this is likely not to become the government’s actual budget, it gives insight into the guiding principles of economics in the country. So, I wanted to get a little bit of a better understanding of the Chicago Public Library’s (CPL) budget. I will be referencing the 2015 annual report, and I am likely to refer to it in other posts as well. The Library has two major funding sources: Public Funding and Private Donations. CPL, like most municipal libraries, is mostly funded by local tax money. This is why you need to prove residency to obtain a library card. In 2015, CPL had $133,228,966 of revenue. $97,072,000 (73%) of that came directly from the City of Chicago. Another $18,983,000 (14%) came from the State of Illinois and $1,448,033 (1%) from the federal government. A little more than $2 million came from fines (oops, that was me!) and more than $8 million from bonds. This leaves some $4 million that came from the Chicago Public Library Foundation, a charity that raises funds to support new and innovative programs. This is an incredible budget that is used to operate 80 branches, nearly 1000 employees, and 9 million patrons.
Public institutions, like the library, are experiencing massive privatization efforts (here is one such example of privatization efforts in CPS). In addition to the push of the private sector to manage public institutions, there is increased pressure to cut funding at the federal (and state level). In other words, people are asking why I, who live in California, should pay for you, who live in Illinois. While only 1% of the CPL budget come from the federal government, the American Library Association notes how important federal funding is for libraries nation wide (see here). In a municipality such as Chicago, where the library is relatively sustainable at the city and state levels, federal funding isn’t a big issue. However, there are cities, towns, and villages in this country that have far less access to such grand institutions as the CPL. I think of the library I visited today, in West Town, which had free wifi for everyone, scores of computers (many designated for teens), tutoring time, community events, polling space, books, staff, and many other amenities that promote the general welfare of the city. Other areas don’t have this at all! So, I think about the disparity of library access that exists between, say, Chicago and some small town with many people below the poverty line, and I am struck by the importance of federal funding for those libraries. The public needs to defend our institutions. A pure free-market, laissez-faire system will only allow for the library-rich areas to become more library-rich while other areas with less access will continue to have less and less access. That is competition.
I advocate for more widespread access to libraries. These institutions are vital to the development of a free society and cannot be relegated to the free-market. We also cannot afford to think only local or intra-state. The general welfare of any area in the country is good for the welfare of all people in the country. Therefore, federal support for libraries and other institutions is appropriate and necessary for the general good of our nation.
Ok, now, back to writing about the West Town Branch. It will appear here.