Voting Yes for a Library and the Value of Public Spaces
On Tuesday, August 2, 2011, the people of Troy, MI have the opportunity to vote for a property tax increase (it's really not an increase because housing values are diminishing and so the amount of tax we're paying each year is decreasing). But, we will go to the polls to vote yes or no on a .70 millage for 5 years. That "tax" calls for property owners to pay .70 cents per 1000 dollars of taxable property value (half the assessed value). I can tell you that my increase will be well below $100, and I'm quite willing to pay for it. Now the opponents of this increase have used all manner of convoluted arguments, many of which are false or misleading, to try to convince the community that we can have a library without an increase. This simply isn't true. If the library stays then cuts elsewhere in the budget, probably in public safety, will have to be made. So, my family and I will all be voting yes on this very reasonable assessment to protect a vital service in our community.
But perhaps you wonder why we need a public library. After all, we can just as easily get the information we need on the Internet (unless you happen to be one of many who doesn't have a computer at home and make use of the ones at the library) or by downloading books and magazines and newspapers on your e-reader. This is true, for many people today, but there remains a digital divide that only a library is able to bridge.
But, let's move simply beyond the point of delivery of information services and think about the value of public spaces, places that are free and open to everyone, no matter who they are. It doesn't matter your age, your ethnicity, your social status, or your education. It doesn't matter if you can afford to buy a book or not. A library is a place of public gathering, a place where people can bump into each other and share ideas with each other. And this is important as we watch the public sphere become increasingly privatized. That is, we are seeing a nation retreat into smaller and more compact spaces, where the stranger need not be engaged. This isn't good for us as individuals, but it's also not good for our nation. Indeed, much of our current political debate is little more than echo chambers, where people of like mind talk to each other, with little cross fertilization.
In his very important book Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer speaks of the importance of creating public spaces, spaces where social and political bonds can be built, where we can learn from and about others, and help us move out of our private spaces. Libraries are such a place. This is especially true in suburban communities like Troy, MI. We don't have a downtown. There are no public streets lined with shops and restaurants. There are only private malls, and the library, community center, the public parks. All of these are under threat, but especially the library. As to the purpose of these spaces, Palmer writes:
The most vital purpose served by all such places is hidden in plain sight. They give us an experience of civic community beyond the narrow confines of private and political life. They offer us opportunities for creative interactions without which the social fabric of democracy soon becomes tattered and frayed and will unravel sooner or later. They allow strangers with interwined fates a chance to keep restoring the fabric of a good society. (Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy, p. 98).
It's not just about education or information or big government versus small government -- it's about the good society. It's about creating spaces where together we can work for the common good, and not just a privatized good. Ultimately, in the end, we're all in this together! One step toward maintaining the possibility of working toward the common good, in my mind, is to make sure that our library has a steady stream of dedicated funds so it can operate effectively! So, if you're in Troy on Tuesday, vote yes!