Libraries as a luxury item

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The recent federal budget outline, with its proposal to entirely dispense with major agencies that support arts and cultural programming, perpetuates a false dichotomy that’s already been around for too long: That in an industrialized nation where half a million people are homeless on any given night and entire communities don’t have potable drinking water for months at a time, spending public funds on pretty pictures or escapist fiction is frivolous at best, and perhaps even morally suspect. The idea that making sure people are fed and housed and safe is more important than supporting people’s aesthetic, intellectual, or emotional fulfillment dates back at least seventy years, to when Abraham Maslow framed his hierarchy of needs back in in 1943. Maslow put physiological needs at the base of the pyramid, and “self-actualization” at the peak —the places occupied by daily bread and sugary snacks, respectively, in the old food pyramid.

That hierarchy has a “first things first” appeal, and a moral weight that’s hard to argue with. Recent scandals, like that of the Bay Area nonprofit that put more effort into selling couture outfits for toy mice and well-heeled socialites than spending the proceeds on stable housing and residential care for the developmentally disabled adults they were supposed to be helping, tend to reinforce that value system. It’s even part of the thinking behind sumptuary laws, which have existed since at least the 7th century BCE, and effectively allow those in power to decide what counts as “inordinate expenditure” on things like clothing, food, or possessions for people of a given category or social rank. Having nice things is OK up to a point, this logic says, but if a person has things that are too nice, that can give them ideas above their station, and create confusion about who’s really in charge. Not only that, but if people can buy whatever they want, and make bad choices about what they buy, they (not the government) should bear the consequences of choosing something fancy over something plain.

Jason Chaffetz was using a similar essentials-over-extras argument when he made his now-infamous iPhone vs. health insurance comment. As WaPo’s Philip Bump notes in his parsing of that remark, “judging one particular luxury cost against something…more important and responsible” is a very compelling (if flawed) rhetorical strategy, and “the simplest path to generating opposition to government spending is to frame that spending as wasteful.” A budget that proposes to increase defense spending while cutting funding for arts and cultural agencies makes this same kind of argument. A strong military keeps us safe; it is good brown bread. Responsible people spend their grocery money on that, not on the $5 red velvet cupcake of a well-funded cultural sector.

But there are several things wrong with this, starting with the idea that food and safety vs. arts and culture is an either/or proposition. In recent decades, psychologists and social scientists have seriously complicated and questioned Maslow’s original hierarchy of needs. Among other things, they’ve found that the primacy of physiological need is easily upset by differences in culture, age, and whether we’re living in a time of war or peace, or in a social context of relative wealth or poverty. Need is always contextual.

What’s more, when we feel unsafe and threatened by “others,” we do seek safety, but doing so makes it even more important that we know and affirm who “we” are in opposition to “them.” Who we are is, fundamentally, culture — which includes both our highest arts and our most popular entertainments. The old food pyramid has even been replaced by a different model called MyPlate, where everything’s on the same level, and just taking up different amounts of space. All of this is to say, our models are no longer so much about hierarchies and first-things-first, but portions and balances. Even societies that prize simplicity, modesty, and restraint as cultural values have found ways to raise their voices in song, decorate their clothing and their living spaces, tell jokes, express tenderness. Those ways can be definitive. If the human creatures survive, but their unique ways of being together as a culture do not, the people as individuals live while they as a people are lost.

So we need both: We need government services that support our physical wellbeing, and we need the services that support our intellectual, aesthetic, and cultural lives too. Not only that, but libraries, museums, and cultural institutions don’t exist apart from “essential services”; they’re intertwined with them, and in fact they often provide them. During the financial crisis of 2008, I was attending the University of Texas at Austin as a PhD student in the School of Information (on, it should be noted, a fellowship funded by an IMLS grant). As news of the economy got worse day by day, one of my close friends expressed concern about my prospects: “I mean, things are getting so bad. And you’re putting all this time into going to school to be…a librarian.” It was clear from her comments that she had libraries firmly fixed in the category of luxury goods — high on the list of costs that would be targeted when city budgets got tight. I asked her, “What do you think people are going to do when they lose their jobs and their house gets foreclosed on and can’t afford to just buy whatever books they want from Amazon? They’re going to go to the library where they can borrow them for free.” “Oh,” she said, “I guess so, huh?” As it turns out, we’re both right. People do rely more on libraries during times of economic hardship, even as library funding gets targeted in crusades against wasteful government spending. The same goes for art, music, performance — when people can’t assume the costs of these things privately, a greater portion of those costs just gets shifted to public agencies.

I’ve never personally bought a painting; that has always seemed like an extravagance when I’ve had rent to pay and nothing to speak of in my savings account. I would be bankrupt if I’d had to buy every book I’ve ever read. But I’ve looked at thousands of pieces of art on the walls of museums and galleries, and I use my public library like a mofo. Concerts in the park, free days at the museum — demand for these kinds of public programs always increases significantly when times are tough, and more people are struggling to pay the rent and put food on the table. If you do subscribe to the idea that there’s a moral imperative to always choose paying for food and shelter over paying for beauty and pleasure, then you should support government funding for arts and cultural organizations, because it makes those responsible choices possible. A budget that eliminates cultural spending is tantamount to a universal sumptuary law. It explicitly reserves art and entertainment, intellectual stimulation and information services, for those who can afford to pay for them and food and shelter, both. If you can’t go out of pocket for your arts and culture, there is no responsible free option for you, only irresponsible self-indulgence.

My own work as an IMLS-funded researcher and university professor points to other ways in which information services are deeply involved in civic life. My research partner at UCLA and I recently hosted a National Forum meeting that brought together digital archivists, police, journalists, technology vendors, and civil liberties advocates to address the data management needs created by police body-worn camera programs. Among other things, we sought to identify what skills and resources people managing large amounts of audiovisual evidence would need, and what role library and information science education programs might play in meeting those needs. As a follow-on to this “On the Record, All the Time” meeting, we taught a graduate seminar here in the Department of Information Studies, during which our students and guest speakers discussed body-worn cameras in the context of a whole range of public record-making and record-keeping practices. (Our syllabus is here.) We paid a visit to the UCLA Police Department, spoke to their officers; we saw how they use video and audio recording systems in their station, patrol vehicles, and on- and off-campus locations. Library school isn’t just for librarians; librarians don’t just work in libraries. We have a significant role to play in many different public agencies, and managing a vast range of records and forms of information is our bread and butter, professionally speaking. IMLS isn’t just funding for libraries and museums; it provides essential support for interdisciplinary work that bridges public agencies and communities of practice (like police departments and city archives, universities and arts organizations). It helps ensure that we will have a robust national digital infrastructure and well-trained, forward-thinking people to operate it.

The one way in which the food pyramid/Maslow’s hierarchy analogy does hold up here is in the relative proportions — the fact that threatened agencies like IMLS, NEA and NEH occupy the tiny little peak of the pyramid, the smallest of slices of the overall pie. The pointy part’s the sharpest: there is ample evidence that public funding for libraries and other cultural organizations gets a return on investment that for-profit businesses would give their eye teeth to achieve, while the benefits of military spending (which constitutes a much, much larger portion of our federal budget) are not so clear. The point part’s also the first to get broken off, of course, while the big, stable bottom segment rarely gets touched.

Libraries love this quote from Erasmus:

“When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.”

They use it here, there, and everywhere. Big-box bookstores like it too, on t-shirts and totebags and whatnot. Hahaha, these all seem to say — that kooky ol’ Erasmus is so extreme! No one really does that! That would be crazy. In the moral universe we occupy, asking that the current administration turn their priorities inside-out, take the NEA, NEH, and IMLS off the chopping block, double their funding, and use whatever’s left over for defense spending is a non-starter. But we must strenuously fight the notion that they are agencies our nation can or should do without. Libraries and arts organizations are not luxury items for our society. (That’s especially the case for those segments of our society who already have the fewest luxuries, and yet poor and less educated people have seen disproportionate declines in library use — perhaps because of cuts to local services.) Spending on them, and on the agencies which support their work, is not government waste. These agencies have earned their place on our list of national priorities, and they deserve to stay there.