Are Billionaire Foundations Dumbing Down Our Public Library?

It all started innocently enough. I and some other members of the Tucson Chapter of the National Writers Union had been noticing that books which we’d been intending to or had already read — written by some very established international and “mid-list” literary authors — were disappearing from our public library’s shelves to, it seemed, make way for empty shelf space. And so, on behalf of the union, I wrote a letter to the Pima County Public Library (PCPL) in the spring of 2010 expressing our concerns, expecting a dialogue to ensue.

But we quickly learned a dialogue wasn’t on offer, just a series of opaque and obfuscatory responses that pointed in curious directions. For example, some of the terminology that the library used seemed very odd. Traditionally, libraries speak of “best practices” and “library patrons,” but we were being told of “industry standards” and “library customers”; traditionally libraries (at least in my experience) “discarded” books, now they were being “weeded” as though they were an invasive, exotic plant species; and we were being told that the library had such a limited collection because it was a “popular” library and not a “research” library. This especially was a strange distinction since very few public libraries consider themselves to be research libraries and the concept of a popular library had traditionally been applied to a room or floor of a library – where it offered more popular books and DVDs – but never to a whole public library system.

Indeed, these librarians seemed strangely oblivious to books in general: my pointing out in an op-ed in the Tucson Weekly that the library had one of the worst per capita book collections in the country elicited only the most banal of responses, i.e. that it is because “we are making room on the shelves for high-demand and popular books.” They even seemed unperturbed by the fact that over 13,000 books in the library’s collection had gone missing; when asked by a KVOA news reporter investigating the disappearance why they didn’t bother to do the standard security measures for a book (i.e. they no longer attached RFID chips to the books and, even more improbably, no longer bothered to stamp their books with the library’s name or logo), they cited a “cost benefit analysis” which showed that such measures weren’t cost effective.

And then there was the way they addressed us – ranging from, at best, a formal if polite officialese (i.e. when they, on occasion, actually did answer our questions) while more generally utilizing obfuscation and opaqueness (i.e., when they didn’t answer our questions) but also including outright misrepresentation of our position. This event (which we only came across later in public documents) occurred when the then library director by described us to the Pima County Library Advisory Board, which nominally oversees the running of the library, as “a special interest group representing writers [who are] inquiring why books that their members have published are not kept in the Library’s collections.” We never mentioned any such a concern in any of our correspondence to her; however, in this surprisingly hard ball game of politics we discovered ourselves to be playing, it apparently served her interests to reduce us in front of the Advisory Board to a parochial (indeed, bordering on pathetic) group of writers. The alternative explanation — that it was an honest mistake by the library director – would not only suppose that she completely misread our intent, but somehow thought that Stanislaw Lem and Kobo Abe, two of the famous, deceased and non-American writers that we cited in our correspondence, were somehow current members of the Tucson Chapter of the National Writers Union.

After adding all of these experiences together, we were forced to ask ourselves: “What in the world is going on here?” Was it collective madness on their part? Some peculiar ideas that had taken hold of the library’s leadership? The influence of a particularly odd, right-wing politician who had served on the Library Advisory Board for a number of years (yes, Frank Antenori, I’m talking about you)? Or was the sale of all those books creating some sub-stream for graft (though, given that the books they bought for $20 to $30 would then be sold a few months later for a couple of dollars, it was hard to see how it could be a very large stream)?

We really had no idea and no real chance to get direct answers to these questions since we were never invited to meet with library officials; indeed, these new policies changing the size and nature of the library’s collection had been gradually implemented over a period of several years without any public discussion by the previous and current library directors. And, by the time we started trying to figure out what might actually be happening, our campaign was running out of steam for the same reasons that activist campaigns such as ours so often do – i.e. the energy generated by our anger and disgust at the new policies had been worn down over a period of years by an entrenched, salaried bureaucracy – and so these questions remained unanswered.

Recently, however, resolving the seemingly anomalous question of what in the world might be going on at the PCPL gained an impetus, and from an unlikely, foreign quarter: the Czech publication Tvar was doing an interview with me this year (I spend part of every year in the Czech Republic, where I write and translate) for an issue whose theme was “activism” and, as an example of literary activism, they translated and published in that issue my 2012 op-ed piece for the Weekly criticizing the PCPL’s policies and justifications for them.

In response to this, a Czech librarian, Jan Nový, wrote a letter that was published in the following issue in which he described similar ideas being bandied about over there. These included the idea that public libraries must “free up” their bookshelves from books so they aren’t so cluttered and confusing to library patrons; to achieve this goal, it is proposed that those librarians who can discard the most books should be given rewards. And that, in general, they are continually being told of “the necessity to change libraries, to modernize and revitalize them” even to the point where, at one seminar on the theme of “creative libraries,” they were told that they must evolve their institution towards the day when libraries won’t have any books and “readers” will visit the library for very different reasons.

That many of the same strange policies and rationales present in our isolated American city were also being advocated on the other side of the world suggests that there might be deeper, hidden currents present in the PCPL’s policies; that, as Polonius would have had it concerning Hamlet, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”

In fact, the insistent assertion that a major and radical overhaul was needed when this need wasn’t necessarily apparent; the odd use of business models and lingo in reference to public institutions; and the spectacle of highly placed officials within these institutions advocating or implementing seemingly counter-intuitive policies called to my mind the much ballyhooed “reform” to “save” public education in the United States that had been gathering steam since President George W. Bush introduced the “No Child Left Behind” program.

This reform model insists that public schools should function according to a business model (in the case of charter schools, quite literally so) in which all aspects of education are rationalized, quantified and standardized so as to facilitate competition between teachers and schools; merit pay is then dispensed to the best “performing” teachers and grants to the highest scoring schools.

Further, the curriculum that comes with the reforms almost entirely focuses,  even in the areas of reading and writing, on basic mechanical skills. As Dianne Ravitch, a former Assistant Secretary of Education under George H.W. Bush and leading critic of the new model, pointed out in an interview, it is always about function, not content; that if you look at the state standards for these tests in, for example, reading, you ask yourself, “Well, where’s the literature? Because what they talk about is strategies and processes and previewing and reviewing and predicting. And you think, you know, why aren’t kids getting good literature? Aren’t they reading the great stuff, you know, world literature, American literature, English literature, Spanish literature? No, it’s not there…”

What makes all this particularly interesting from our point of view (as we shall see) is the role that has been played by billionaire foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or the Walton Family Foundation (run by the heirs of the Walmart retail empire). They have spent billions of dollars to advocate for the “need” for reform and to train municipal, state and federal education officials (and place supporters in important federal positions, such as Secretary of Education) in the virtues — if not the necessity — of either privatizing public education or at least making it a competitive enterprise, and all of it with a focus on the core curriculum described above.

Of course, unlike with public schools, there was no sense that public libraries were in any way failing. And so a different point of attack – i.e. a need to create a sense, indeed an urgent one, that there was a crisis – was apparently necessary. In large part, this point of attack seems to lie in the market-oriented, private sector mantra that one either continually innovates or one’s enterprise dies. If it has a further foundation, it would seem to be the notion that books, and even the act of reading, were becoming obsolete. And so, in order to remain relevant and survive, public libraries – traditionally conceived as the “People’s University” — had to reshape themselves and adopt a new mission or cease to be relevant.

So, first off, public libraries were to become technology centers. Here, not surprisingly, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided considerable funding and very quickly, in the course of the late 1990s, public libraries across the USA started offering computer and Internet access. But, of course, few advocates of the traditional public library would see any problem with this: “real” universities, after all, offer computer and internet access to their students, so why not the People’s University as well.

More sinister was the overwhelming emphasis that was being placed on the library as a place of instruction for basic literacy, vocational and technology skills. Indeed, just as Ravitch noted the dearth of any mention of references to literature in state education assessments, the same would seem to be increasingly true of public libraries. The 2013-17 Arizona Library Services and Technology Act plan, for example, in emphasizing that “innovation” should trump “tradition,” speaks precious little about anything resembling a people’s university, the only suggestion of this being a mention of “life-long learning” with no specifics given, whereas very specific mention is made of a variety of basic literacy programs, as well as “Job Assistance and Training Programs,” “Small Business Development,” and “Equal Access to Justice Programs.” Similarly, in her public response to our op/ed piece in the Tucson Weekly, the PCPL library director offered no defense of their “weeding out” of serious reading materials (whether it be in the areas of science, the arts, technology or health) from the collection. She did, however, emphasize the following: “Demand for electronic resources is increasing, as is demand for physical space in our libraries, where access to job-help resources, online and in-library homework assistance, literacy tutoring, and public computers is increasing. In addition, seating for customers using wireless, in-house collections and meeting rooms is at an all-time high.”

This approach and lingo is echoed in the mission statement of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries program which states that “our Global Libraries program works to support the transformation of libraries as engines of development,” adding that “if libraries can reinvent themselves and embrace their role as online information centers, the impact on individuals and communities will be significant” because “through the Internet, people search for employment, find markets for their crops and products, access government programs, learn new skills through online courses, research important health issues, and engage in social interactions with distant family members and friends.”

Contrast this with the more traditional concept of the library, described by the esteemed scholar Vartan Gregorian, the director of the New York Public Library in the 1980s, according to which “the library is the University of Universities, the symbol of our universal community, of the unity of all knowledge, of the commonwealth of learning. It is the only true and free university there is. In this university there are no entrance examinations, no subsequent examinations, no diplomas, and no graduations. Ralph Waldo Emerson had it right when he called the library the People’s University. Thomas Carlyle, too, called it the True University or The House of Intellect”; Gregorian goes on to emphasize that it was such thinking that inspired the industrialist Andrew Carnegie — whose formal education ended at the age of twelve but whose informal education continued in a library where “he learned Shakespeare by heart, studied the Renaissance artists, and honed a memory that was to serve him superbly all his business life” – to become the great benefactor of the public library system in the United States.

There is, of course, no reason why a strong book and periodicals collection cannot co-exist with the technology and vocational programs that the billionaire foundations are pushing. Indeed, literacy and English as a Second Language classes are no strangers to public libraries, and it is only to be expected that PCPL would, for example, take advantage of a $100,000 planning grant from the MacArthur Foundation (another billionaire foundation) to design a new youth media space. [Footnote] And yet the presupposition that books and the reading of books, especially more serious books, is no longer of any particular relevance for a public library seems very much a part of their program. This is reflected in the PCPL as it now is: bestsellers and popular thematic books sitting on half-empty, low-lying shelves, a library in which the occasional work of literature or more serious book that is present is too rare a thing to give the library patron the sense that there is a world out there beyond the commercialized culture that they are already being inundated with.

None of this, however, explains why these forces would want libraries to undertake such a transformation. It is certainly tempting to think that the transition of the library from the People’s University to a vocational school is part of a social engineering program to “dumb down” the population, especially given current projections that most of the jobs that will be created in the near- and medium-future will be in the low-skill and low-wage category. Why, after all, create high expectations which will only turn to frustration when those expectations aren’t met? Indeed, why fuel that frustration with fancy ideas gleaned from our great works of thought and literature?

But it would also seem possible that we are witnessing a cultural changeover. Public libraries, public schools and state universities are all institutions whose formative years lie in the 19th century when capitalist economy and culture, though already dominant, was a relatively new phenomenon and Renaissance and Enlightenment ideas of culture and learning remained strong. Additionally, billionaire philanthropists of the time often emulated the aristocracy after making their fortunes and thus became (like Carnegie) patrons of the arts and humanities. But a full century of capitalist dominance has elapsed since Carnegie’s time and has apparently allowed the concept of the market as the measure of all things to permeate ever further, and so the contemporary philanthropist focuses on making people not “better rounded” human beings but more market-savvy, and on making public institutions more like capitalist enterprises.

And if these suppositions are true, then the seeming idiosyncrasy of the PCPL is in fact only the opening up of, one might say, a further front in the incessant “capitalizing” of our institutions and culture. And, unless one is an enthusiast of such an all-permeating market-focused culture, it is important to resist these encroachments. And here too the PCPL can be an object lesson. The current state of the PCPL collection shows what can happen when this battle is lost. But there is at least some consolation and hope to be found in our library collection’s continuing dismal rankings vis-à-vis its fellow public libraries: even here in the USA, the wheelhouse of capitalist culture, there would seem to be real resistance to the billionaire foundations’ attempts to dumb down our People’s Universities.


Footnote: I suppose that one should also not begrudge the PCPL library director’s participation in the NEXT LIBRARY® 2014 conference in Chicago, “an international gathering of forward-thinking library professionals, innovators and decision-makers who are pushing boundaries and making changes that support learning in the 21st century,” featuring panels on “Our Business is Economic Growth,” “Nimble is the Name of the Innovation Game,” and fully eleven members of the Gates Global Libraries Training Working Group discussing the topic “From Global to Local: Infuse Your Library’s Partnership Strategies with Global Perspective.” Nor, while we’re at it, should we begrudge PCPL’s participation in the Gates Foundation-funded study “Making Cities Stronger” which concludes that “Public Library Contributions” towards the study’s stated goal can be summarized as follows: 1) Early Literacy services are a key foundation for long-term economic success (“given strong and growing evidence that investments in early literacy yield a high return and compound over time”); 2) Library employment and career services are preparing workers with new technologies; and 3) Small business resources and programs are lowering barriers to market entry. Still, wouldn’t it be nice if there was something, somewhere in all of this in which the emphasis wasn’t on the usual sexed-up, neo-liberal claptrap preparing us all for a life of transient, low-wage work? In my brief research for this article into the post-modern world of library conferences, studies and grants (in which, by the way, the most egregious example of pure vocationalism was a Gates Foundation-funded ICMA Public Innovation Library Grant that was rewarded to the Rockbridge Regional Library in Virginia to set up a call center training center) I did come across the Pilcrow Foundation, whose approach and language truly seemed a breath of fresh air. Their statement reads: “Our mission is to provide new, quality, hardcover children’s books to rural public libraries across the United States…Libraries are often the center of the community, where people come together to learn and share ideas. Providing quality children’s books to rural public libraries ensures an opportunity for active engagement within the community and lifelong learning…Books can change the life of a child. Be a part of that change and give a child a library book today.” Back to the Text

1 thought on “Are Billionaire Foundations Dumbing Down Our Public Library?”

  1. I spend time on the 3rd floor of the downtown library with the magazines and computers. Recently the library did a remodel and removed about half the chairs in that section. It’s not just books that are being culled, I think it’s library patrons too.


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