Blog Post

A Public Library without the "Public"?

In a move that should resonate with several recent posts I have made here, the Fort Worth has decided to remove "public" from the name of its public library, arguing that it is necessary to "keep up with the times."

David Morris, at CommonDreams.org, has a fantastic take on this ridiculous and troubling decision. "The public library is indeed an institution that has not kept up with the times," he writes. "But given what has happened to our times, why do you see that as unhealthy?"

He offers a valuable, and lengthy, description of the history of the public library. And a taste of its potentially lamentable future:

All things public are under attack. The Fort Worth rebranding is an indication of how effective this attack has been. The city explained that it was dropping the word “public” because of its “potentially negative connotation”. The Founding Fathers would be disconsolate. John Adams wrote in 1776, “There must be a positive passion for the public good, the public interest…established in the minds of the people, or there can be no republican government, nor any real liberty: and this public passion must be superior to all private passions.” Thomas Jefferson agreed, “I profess… that to be false pride which postpones the public good to any private or personal considerations.”

Would it be improper for me to mention the Forth Worth rebranding initiative was mostly paid for by a large oil drilling company?

As is probably not surprising, if you've read any of my other posts, I'm largely with Morris on this point. Just as removing books from public libraries is a terrible idea, disguising its fundamental identity as public is potentially catastrophic.

In the decades after World War II, as I argued in a recent conference paper, public libraries have bought into (so to speak) values of consumer capitalism in ways that left them without a coherent way to articulate their public role when a national political obsession with privatization emerged in the 1970s. And here we are, dealing with the nasty, ludicrous, and frankly depressing consequences.

It's just a word, yes, but it is also (as the library well knows) a brand. And if the odd and sometimes disastrous turns U.S. culture has taken in the last half-century teach us anything, it is that brands are powerful and occasionally dangerous things.

[co-posted at bookmobility.]

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