Before I begin, a caveat: I’ll be the first to admit that I am not the most logical thinker in the world. I go with my gut on most issues. So if any of my arguments seem incredibly simple or even stupid, they just might be. And I am okay with that. Mostly.
After reading a couple of posts by the Annoyed Librarian (Libraries the Meritocracy, Give Them What They Need) I began thinking about privilege, libraries, and how the two intersect and affect the larger world.
From “Give Them What They Want”, which was written in May, so the Annoyed Librarian is well aware of the financial crisis we’re all in right now:
So the question is, do public libraries provide something that’s necessary, but not generally available? Not just nice, but absolutely necessary for the quality of life of people in the community?
Here’s where librarians start talking about Internet access, but I suspect that response doesn’t resonate well with the Americans who both have money and vote, those middle and upper middle who participate most in the political process with their money and their votes.
Why wouldn’t they care? Because, like the majority of Americans, they have Internet access either at home or work or both, and if they didn’t have it, they could afford it if it was a priority. Even a lot of poorer Americans could. How many people without Internet connections have cable television and/or cell phones? Most of them, I bet. And don’t say that even if you can afford an Internet service you still have to buy a computer. To use cable, you still have to buy a television.
Here’s where privilege popped into my head. The tone of this excerpt, and the entire post, implies that the writer has never been poor. I think people hear the word “poor” and they imagine food stamps, welfare, pan handling, bare-foot children in the dirt kind of poor. But there are many kinds of poor. There is a poverty spectrum, if you will. There are the poor who subsist on aid or charity, and there are the working poor, and there are those who have been plunged into unemployment by layoffs or firings or who are no longer solvent because their investments were corrupted.
The working poor can own a television, yes, and they can even subscribe to cable. Do they have the means to pay their bill every month, on time? And how old might their television be? If it is newer, is it being paid for in installments? They probably have cell phones, too, but are they on plans, or do they have pay as you go phones, which sometimes aren’t paid and don’t go? How many of these people juggle their bills each month, deciding which ones to pay now and which ones to put off? How many of these people have their phones, television, and computer because of credit cards that they have run to the limit and can no longer afford to pay? Maybe they do have internet access, but it is only dial-up, and they prefer the faster speeds at the library.
When you lose your job, or you have a job that doesn’t pay enough to cover all of your debts and expenses, life is hard. No, you’re not starving, you’re not homeless–yet–but the stress wears on you. The phone is constantly ringing until finally the phone is shut off. The mailbox is a land mine that you don’t want to go near. As soon as one bill is paid another arrives, or your car breaks down, or your kid gets sick, or you cut your finger open making dinner and you have to decide whether or not the trip to the emergency room is worth it. Even working people with health care, if they are over extended, have to decide whether or not the twenty dollar co-pay is worth it, or if they can even afford that at the moment.
You can’t tell the working poor by looking at them. They can be any age, any race, any gender. You can tell, after a while, who is struggling. The man whose entire family comes with him to the library every day, and every question he has has to do with submitting a resume electronically, or using google maps to map out how far away a job is. The woman whose kids love the library, but can only come sporadically, depending on whether or not their truck is running at any given time. The mother who asks, quietly, after you tell her all about your amazing programming for children, “And how much does it cost?” The relief in her eyes when you say that all library programming is absolutely free tells you the entire story.
Oh, and another thing about the poor I just remembered. Not only do they not have any money, they usually don’t vote.
That’s from the Annoyed Librarian again, who, per usual, doesn’t bother to provide any sources. Even I, as lazy as I am, will quote a bit from wikipedia:
The most important socioeconomic factor in voter turnout is education. The more educated a person is, the more likely he or she is to vote, even when controlled for other factors such as income and class that are closely associated with education level. Income has some effect independently: wealthier people are more likely to vote, regardless of their educational background. (Voter Turn-out)
Since we can’t reasonably make poor people richer, we have to educate them. Since college is expensive (and not worth the money these days, in my opinion), the library will have to fill in. This was the mission of the first intentionally public library (the Boston Public Library, in 1854, included in its statement of purpose “The future of democracy is contingent on an educated citizenry“), and everyone from Glenn Beck to Frank Zappa has touted the educational value and necessity of libraries.
So the assumption that poor people can have internet access if they want it is a faulty one. The assumption that they don’t vote is less faulty, but is probably less of a factor than education. If we can provide free education to the working poor or those living in poverty, they will be more likely to vote in ways that might improve their situations. Or they will become more employable, etc.
The Annoyed Librarian’s penultimate paragraph states:
And what is the necessary? This is where choices become very hard. What’s more important for the community? Library staff or library databases? Romance novels or reference books? Librarians have to emphasize what libraries have that most people really need, even if only occasionally, rather than what they want only in good times. [emphasis mine]
Which I take to mean that providing internet access to the working poor isn’t important, or necessary. The job board by the adult reference desk isn’t important. The storytimes that provide important literacy skills and social interaction for children who can’t attend preschool are not important. If upper middle class and rich people don’t need it, it isn’t important. You people, with your debts and your unemployment and your struggles, you’re not important, and you don’t matter, because you don’t vote and since you don’t vote, when the library is on the chopping block those rich people won’t vote for it and you’ll be up shit creek without a paddle.
That is privilege–being able to write off an entire swath of humanity because you’ve deemed them unimportant. It is easy to do with the poor, with immigrants, with children and teens, the elderly, the disabled–if you’re privileged enough, it is easy ignore them, and make them the other, and decide that what they need and what they want isn’t important because it isn’t important to you.
I’m sure any librarian reading this could look through their institution’s policies and find something that discriminates against someone, and asserts some sort of privilege. Most common targets in libraries are teens, and the homeless (lots of libraries adding “hygiene” clauses to their policies). Think about it, and see how it makes you feel. Try to find something about yourself that makes you vulnerable, and think about how you’d feel if there were a policy attacking you for it. Like fat people on Southwest airlines. Or gays in the military. Or gay marriage. Or adopting as a single parent. See how this privilege issue can spiral out of control?
I feel a little ill.
I am certainly not attacking the Annoyed Librarian. I’m sure we agree more than we disagree, but I can’t really tell for some reason. There’s something about the tone of the writing that keeps me at a distance so I can never really tell where the writer is coming from, or what it really intends to say.
Some excellent books on the working poor are The Working Poor: Invisible in America and Nickel and Dimed: on (not) Getting by In America.
More librarians need to idolize Frank Zappa.