>OK, I generally try to avoid controversy, but this demands a response–especially since I feel as if the relevance of my profession is under fire. According to a letter from this city’s mayor, published in a news release on the 26th:
“The PPL is a private non-profit, but that does not mean it has the right to transform itself into a boutique institution built around its valuable rare books.”
Leaving aside the fact that, by definition, a private non-profit has the right to do whatever it can to survive and still perform its mission (including altering that mission), this is an utterly false statement. This library’s annual operating budget is close to $10 million/year. The Library pays one (1) librarian’s salary from this budget, less than one percent of it’s operating costs, to maintain and promote its rare books & special collections. Acquisitions come from restricted funds only–money that absolutely cannot be used for anything else (this is our sacred promise to our donors), and amounts to another one tenth of one percent. I cannot imagine a more incorrect statement, nor do I understand the basis for it, that this institution is forming itself around its rare book collection. Whatever else is true about the PPL, it most certainly is NOT spending money on this department (and rightly so, but more about that later).
The fact that we promote these collections may be where the confusion lies–but why should we not? We have one of the finest gatherings of unique and historic materials in the state. Do I sit in an overstuffed leather chair and smoke cigars and sip sherry all day?? Do I hunch in a corner, chuckling over abstruse bibliographic minutiae? No. I give public talks and mount exhibitions, like a recent one on Rhode Island slavery that drew in 85 people and sparked a lively discussion. I give presentations to graduate and undergraduate classes from RISD, Brown, URI, and RIC; to fifth graders at the Wheeler School, to third and fourth graders at the Gregorian School, and interested groups at other libraries, all for free. I particularly remember one fifth grader who, upon touching a book signed by George Washington, claimed she would never wash that hand again.
I assist scholars and genealogists, artists and enthusiasts from around the world (Alaska to Australia), who are stunned and gratified to find what they were looking for in a city library. And I publish articles on the collections, to make them better known and to generate possible donations. Perhaps this is the definition of useless extravagance, as the mayor seems to think, but it is only the barest sliver of service that this library (through my esteemed colleagues in other departments) performs for the city.
The mission of the library is to serve every resident, and generally most of them are struggling with more immediate concerns (getting a job, filing their taxes, doing homework, or learning English). The spectrum of “lifelong learning,” which is what we are promoting (along with the entire American Library Association, with a professional membership of over 65,000 librarians), begins with literacy training and culminates in the appreciation and use of historic documents and collections for creative and intellectual purposes. It all connects on a continuum, and anyone who sees a library as merely a building with heat and light and open hours, run by clerks doling out videos, books, and computer time, has no concept of library service, and no cultural vision.
When libraries have the support they require (other cities have libraries of stunning beauty and surpassing usefulness), we meet the public on their own terms and guide them to (and through) a wealth of resources and information of a magnitude that could scarcely have been imagined when we opened our doors in 1878. Forty years ago this library was at the forefront of its peers, and you cannot tell me that the blame for where we are today rests solely with us–not with the refrain of “partnership” echoing through the decades.