THE RAZOR'S EDGE
Libraries in a Time of Crisis: Remaking the Social Compact
by Brendan Howley
Fifty-six years ago, on Jan. 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy put millions of Americans to a very particular test: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Kennedy’s call to action has the feel of a different time—of a different America—when libraries were reverential places where books came and went in silence, except for the soft thump of the librarian’s rubber stamp on the due date card.
Welcome to the battered U.S. social compact of 2017, the centenary of Kennedy’s birth. Perhaps never since the chaos of the civil rights movement slamming into the nascent resistance of the Vietnam War has America been so darkly, damagingly split. Culturally, politically, emotionally, and even spiritually, the country has precious little common ground.
Libraries are that common ground. Moreover, they at once stand apart from their communities—as trusted repositories of a community’s past and intellectually honest resources for the community’s future—and couldn’t be closer to the day-to-day pulse of community life. They aren’t alone as essential services: Museums and hospitals, each in their own ways, serve vital needs of identity and care. But libraries are custodians of the very fabric of society, because they nurture discovery, self-worth, and belief in possibility, and they share the tools to make social goods manifest.
And libraries share something else, something intangible that needs to be made tangible: inclusivity. Libraries serve everyone without distinction. Standing up to the Department of Homeland Security, which Edward Snowden cheered in a now-famous tweet, a New Hampshire public library and its community—with the help of the Library Freedom Project—protected their patrons’ privacy by installing an anonymous internet browsing network. This is no small thing—and I write this as someone who, in his past life, was an investigative journalist specializing in intelligence and counterintelligence matters.
‘The Myth of the Rational Market’
That model of inclusivity is already under great stress, not least because civil liberties are themselves being tested as never before, not even after 9/11. The question isn’t so much about one’s political belief system—there are folks in Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of remarkably different political stripes—as it is about the notion of one’s own dedication to service. The social history of all of this is complex, but there’s little doubt that the commodification of the relationship between citizen and government isn’t entirely unrelated to what financial journalist Justin Fox terms “the myth of the rational market.”
We’ve somehow come to believe that the relationship between citizen and government is now a kind of marketized buffet, where you get something back for “what you paid for.” If that were indeed the case, there are billionaires and their corporate vehicles that would stand naked to the marketplace, for they pay in a pittance, but in reality, they win unparalleled subsidies in return. (An unsung model of this, to name but one, is the U.S. interstate highway system, without whose “commons” the U.S. economy would be vastly different and less efficient.)
Free market capitalism is at war with itself, Fox writes. And the devil take the hindmost, as in 2008’s subprime mortgage crisis, which nearly brought the temple of global finance down around the ears of the bankers and their technicians who so diligently built financial instruments that simply cascaded into nothing. Less than nothing, in fact: The cataclysm saw hundreds of millions of high-risk debt written off or monetized by the U.S. taxpayer.
Fear-Based Power Mongering
What does this mean to the commons in the care of libraries and librarians? It means there’s a premium on critical thinking, now more than ever. For where fear stalks, simplistic and impassioned “solutions” aren’t far behind. Fear, the old French aphorism says, “is the deadliest assassin; it does not kill, but keeps you from living.” Fear rots the essence of civility: our sociability, the means of rational thought, simple altruism, our considered impulse to act on our own behalf, and, at its highest, in concert with others, the essence of the commons.
In Canada, in the last federal election, the government tried manfully to designate its political enemies as threats to prosperity and, even more so, national security. It failed spectacularly. A national call-in line offered the sitting government’s ear to those interested in reporting suspicious behavior, code-named “barbaric practices.” What happened, hilariously, was the reverse: Citizens (including many from the government’s own party) “turned the government in,” clogging the service with beefs about the government itself and bringing an abrupt end to the experiment.
Canada’s experience was milquetoast compared to Chile’s. Beginning in 1973, Chile’s military government undertook this sort of strategy for nearly 2 decades to preserve, by dint of political terror (well beyond tacit individual fear), its own grip on power. The Chilean welfare state became, in very short order, a political warfare state.
It’s no surprise that spiraling opioid use and suicide rates among formerly middle-class men—the first casualties of the collapse of Middle America—parallel the pointed “life lesson” that radically diminished material security (a predicate for the social determinant of health, to name but one massive issue) is “your own damn fault.” That’s to miss the crisis entirely. What’s at fault is uncritical thinking, which equates a social casualty with social failure of someone’s own making. It is here that libraries have a singular role to play.
Fear is toxic. Fear spikes inward thinking, which is the type of isolationism—both moral and economic—that’s so evident in U.S. government policymaking right now. Fear catalyzes the irrational, the phobic, and the naming of an ever-longer list of imagined or potential enemies. Critical thinking, the making of time to think and to reflect on the world cogently rather than to consume ever-more-packaged media about The Latest Crisis, is the sine qua non of librarianship.
Boston’s South End as a Microcosm
Let’s examine a crisis we all know, the one right down on the street corner, far (or perhaps not so far) from public policy, where property values and gentrification morph entire neighborhoods—the very ones served by the local library (itself sometimes the last vestige of a free commons space amid the marketization of property). A use case is in order: The South End in Boston, a neighborhood for decades “in transition,” has been slowly gentrifying and displacing inner-city residents since the Reagan Era. In Good Neighbors, a book every library ought to consider shelving, sociologist Sylvie Tissot describes what happens when visions of a city compete—and who’s most likely to win that competition (versobooks.com/books/1855-good-neighbors).
The South End, as Tissot’s ethnographic data and narrative suggest, has been transformed by the very best intentions of the gentrifiers into a neighborhood where the working-class character vanished but the architectural value in the bones of the houses of those displaced boomed. This is marketization again, at the expense of real social democracy, inclusiveness, and a sense of diversity, however well-intentioned the “remaking.” This is the beating heart of libraries’ clear role in promoting social justice and co-creating community value—again, often intangible and nonmarket—as antipoverty initiatives. Tissot recounts how affordable housing in the South End vanished, not because of an avowed public policy, but because social diversity—meaning reclaiming lives impoverished by racialized politics—diminished as a priority as “pioneering” gentrifiers acted, perhaps unconsciously, against the interests of the poor.
And U.S. libraries aren’t alone. Even the International Monetary Fund has acknowledged the manifold failures of hypercapitalism globally. All over the world, the social costs of inequality have already ignited the flammable, evidenced by Spain’s Indignados Movement and the hot mess of the Greek economic catastrophe.
Get Talking at the Library
How can libraries catalyze citizenship and help communities find their own way out of the box? For one, simply host conversations about the nature of work and social capacity—a dialogue about guaranteed minimum income, for instance. Or host a talk about affordable housing as “the best inoculation there is” against rising healthcare costs for those least able to advocate for themselves. Libraries and librarians have untold street cred: The library “brand” is supremely trustworthy, and libraries are clearly respected “honest brokers” in any civic debate as well as the source of unbiased data and the most respected knowledgebase in any community. There’s no end to possible topics.
Here’s another: My company, the Both/And Partnership, is at present in queue to deploy a library-centric research project in a large Canadian city (we’re awaiting the green light as I type) designed to open up a fugitive population displaced by gentrification, to empower that population to tell their own stories on their own terms, and then to socialize those stories across the city as actionable intelligence for affordable housing stakeholders. Ours is a deliberate strategy to remake the social compact among citizens about the roles and responsibilities in the city’s renaissance by sharing stories designed to bubble up intelligence—using story as an intelligence tool for concrete action around evidence- based policymaking.
In 2011, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich noted that the typical American middle class family worked 500 hours per year more than their 1979 counterpart, and yet still—because wages failed to keep pace with productivity—owed their soul to the company store with massive personal debt. That’s not a social compact; it’s indentured servitude.
Libraries are indeed the last commons. In the coming remaking of the American social compact—however this struggle plays out, through worker cooperatives, a guaranteed annual income, or something else—libraries have a clear role as an honest broker in a time of fake news. What’s more, librarians have a voice, based on their lived experience as community first responders: the people who see their community at its most vulnerable. Librarians are witnesses with voices of their own. It’s time—as the librarians did to safeguard privacy rights—to raise those voices and be heard.