Fear of Socialism

October 23, 2009

Two small items in this month's American Libraries really connected for me. On page 34 we have a quote from the San Francisco Chronicle's open reader forum, in which the writer says facetiously, "Of all the current assaults on our noble republic, perhaps none is more dangerous than the public option-specifically, the public library option [which] has undermined the very foundations of our economy." Calling libraries "a menace to capitalism," he mocks an attitude that is all too real to less-government extremists.

Then on page 12 a reader writes presciently that "public libraries are those rare cases where socialism works rather well," adding, "I'm almost afraid to bring this up as it may lead these people to oppose public libraries on general principles and firebomb them." The national debate over healthcare has everyone trying to take a position, with some conservatives waving the specter of socialism at any mention of a public option. ALA has taken the position that a public option is essential to a better system and has attempted to share that conclusion with lawmakers in Washington, and so we are tossed by many into the socialism camp.

The fear that all things public are socialistic doesn't often spill over into discussions about the value of public libraries, but at a time when fear mongers will go to any length to further their agendas, it seems to be happening more and more. Meanwhile, cooler heads remind us that it isn't health care that needs reforming so much as it is capitalistic health care insurance. It's not hospitals or public libraries or educational institutions that got us into this financial mess.

While the economy tanked, library use has continued to soar, as ALA's Office for Research and Statistics points out in an article on public access to information technology. In launching the new @ your library website for the public this year, ALA approached the project in a nontraditional way, building a buzz, as Peggy Barber and Linda Wallace put it in their cover story on page 36, through social media and person-to-person contact. We are reaching out to other nonlibrary educational organizations one at a time, hoping to build a network of links to www.atyourlibrary.org that will engage others in this public awareness campaign for more and better library use.

Many people have asked me why we need a public awareness campaign for America's libraries at a time when people are standing in line for service. The answer is that this is precisely the time, because we need to be seen as an economic solution and not as a self-serving burden merely trying to hang on to our jobs.

Also in this issue, Shai Robkin takes a practical look at how to launch a successful RFID project; and longtime intellectual freedom activist Barbara Jones examines a true menace, the concept of libel tourism—and rest assured, there's nothing socialistic about it.