An Impolitic Series of Uncalled-For Remarks From the Vermont Library Association’s Jan. 18 Rally at the State House, Montpelier, Vermont, USA
I served on the School Board in Burlington a few years back, and I don’t think I slept four hours a night two nights running, because I was horrified and deeply depressed by the financial picture, and how much worse it was than I ever suspected before I joined up. Then I got off the School Board, and I slept really pretty well for a couple of years.
Two, at least. Because then I was asked to become a Trustee of the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington. I couldn’t have been happier to join up, because the Fletcher is one of the oldest and proudest libraries in the state, and I take my girls there to read books on the weekends anyway.
So I figured, here’s my chance to have some real influence on the collection. We were a little thin, to my way of thinking, on Junie B. Jones and The Secrets of Droon, not to mention the now-classic Captain Underpants series, and I figured that would be my first official act as a Trustee, beefing up those core parts of the library’s holdings.
It turned out, though, that the Library Board meetings were almost indistinguishable from School Board meetings: we talked about money non-stop, why exactly we didn’t have any, and how we could maybe get some more.
But there was one major difference: we couldn’t vote to change any of the numbers in our budget. It turned out it didn’t work that way.
Instead, we had to rely primarily on donors, and my first official act as a Trustee turned out to be going over a long scroll of donor names, looking for people I knew — people who liked and trusted me — so that I could call or write them and beg them to give me more money that they didn’t really have.
Don’t get me wrong: I love the Fletcher, and I’m not too proud to beg, but it shouldn’t be that way. Vermont is only one of eight states that refuse to provide State aid to libraries, and let’s face it, that’s just profoundly embarrassing company to keep.
But more than embarrassing, it cuts sharply across the grain of some of the most exciting and forward-looking legislation moving through this building.
Back in 2007, in his State of the State Address, Governor Douglas drew together some of his previous broadband and cellular ideas into something he called “the E State Initiative,” and I’ll just quote a few lines here because it’s a beautiful idea that I support completely:
“I propose,” the Governor said, “that by 2010, Vermont be the nation’s first true ‘e-state’ — the first state to provide universal cellular and broadband coverage everywhere and anywhere within its borders. When you turn on your laptop, you’re connected. When you hit the send button on your cell phone, the call goes through.”
As I said, a beautiful idea, but with one nagging practical problem trailing along behind it: what do you do if you don’t have a laptop or a desktop or a cell phone or a car for that matter?
What if software is moving invisibly through the sky all around you, connecting everyone you can see with everyone you can’t see, and you’re left out of the revolution because you have no hardware, and no way to get any?
Everyone knows the answer: you go to the library.
But once there, no doubt, you wait in line to get on-line. Because the hard fact of the matter is that in addition to archiving culture and preserving knowledge and teaching our kids when they’re not in school, librarians today are also expected to almost single-handedly close the digital divide.
Over the last fifteen years, they’ve seen their libraries become the bridge of last resort for people otherwise unable to reach the Information Society.
If you go into the Fletcher Free Library, and you walk through the stacks, you’ll find a scattering of people browsing or sitting on the floor with a book, and it’s nice — it’s a quiet, studious, languorous experience, exactly as the stacks should be.
But if you go to the computer center on the first floor, the atmosphere is entirely different, mostly because everyone is waiting in line to get on-line: there’s a waiting list, and a soft but productive tension in the air, because more than a few of the people are working on job applications or resumes, which is to say that they don’t currently have a job, or the money that comes with one, or the laptop that might, in a best-case scenario, eventually come on top of all that.
In that way, Vermont’s library system has become not just a place to read, or to promote literacy, although those are crucial functions and God love the men and women who perform them.
It has become the essential, but overlooked connection in the E-state, and without those public libraries closing that circuit, closing that digital divide, any talk of universal coverage is a self-serving fantasy.
I’m all for the “E-State,” in other words — I just don’t want the E to stand for “Exclusive.”
And to go back to where we began, our traditional method of funding Vermont libraries — local taxes and a little help from our friends — never really worked all that well even when the mission was just books.
We never had enough for the books we needed, never enough to make sure the building didn’t let rain in or heat out.
But with the explosion of use centered around non-traditional media — computers, audio and video of ten or fifteen varieties — that traditional means of funding has become a joke that gets a little more cruel every year.
IBM of Essex occasionally donates a cluster of computers, and in that way they help to forestall the inevitable, but it is still inevitable that if Vermont doesn’t join the vast majority of states and begin to pay for what it asks of its libraries, the institutions will buckle under the increased load.
When I was a kid, there was always one job that had to be done before you could string the lights on the Christmas tree: you had to check every single bulb individually because if one was bad, the circuit wouldn’t close, and the whole string would remain dark.
It was a hassle but it prevented an even worse hassle — getting the lights all wound into the evergreen branches, plugging it in, and then having no idea which one of a hundred bulbs needed to be pulled.
I applaud the Legislature’s attempts to wire up the state of Vermont, and it’s going to be a beautiful thing when the job is done.
For God’s sake, though, don’t skimp on the State’s libraries as you do so, because they are already set-up institutionally to fill the digital gap; they’re in place, they’ve rethought their mission, and they’re performing the job admirably as we speak.
But unless we support them financially in that role, this vast string of fiber-optic Christmas lights we’re working on isn’t going anywhere, not really, not in any ethical or moral sense. In that sense, the system will remain dark until everyone has access to the light.
And let’s not kid ourselves. Bringing the light to those without it costs money: 1.6 million dollars is the line item the VLA is requesting, and an absolutely spectacular bargain at that price.
[A shorter version of this commentary aired first on Vermont Public Radio. Audio is available here.]