If we wanted to spend four years on a college campus, isolated from the larger community, stewing in our collective privilege and youth and hated by the city we nominally call home, we would have gone to Duke.
Proudly, we are in Chapel Hill. For the better part of our academic lives, this community serves as our home. During the pandemic, students could no longer toil away on the fifth floor of Davis Library — so some of us turned to Chapel Hill Public Library.
Davis is big, certainly, but it is big like a hippo. The Chapel Hill Public Library is big like a crane. Funded by taxpayer dollars, the place is all light wood and glass and slender light fixtures. It changes character with the seasons. In the summer it is warm and open. In the winter it is cool, chic.
In a place you love, everything becomes a metaphor. The crying babies, gray hair and canes are the importance of intergenerational interactions, of which college students are so often deprived. The trails and play areas out back are the loveliness of a certain loneliness with a book. The coffee stand at the entrance is evidence that it’s never not the time to make a little extra cash.
Of course, there are the annoyances. Their collection is not as big as I would like. The table third from the right in the very back gets cold. I have to avoid one librarian who informed me I owed $15.98 for losing a paperback 15 months ago. I bear it all, though, for the good of the place and the fact that it is public.
Metaphors aside, the general function of a library is pretty important. They serve as collections of information, including copyrighted materials. And public ones are free. That’s important. Buying things like books and academic journal subscriptions are expensive.
Late fees and other fines help recoup some of these costs but are also regressive — they impact those who need free access the most and are the least able to pay.
And with the growth of the internet and the decline in physical visitors, library budgets are an easy target for lawmakers who want to shift money around.
But libraries represent something that doesn’t seem to get much love anymore in US policy interests: public services. Things like the library, the postal service and public transit are often criticized for not making a profit or running a budget deficit. USPS, for example, has been critiqued for losing money, and Postmaster General Louis Dejoy has raised prices on stamps and cut down on operating speeds to reduce costs. These moves might help stem the financial loss, but they make the Postal Service worse.
These services aren’t businesses and approaching them with the mindset of profit and losses is a flawed framework.
Since public services exist as the name implies — to serve the public — we should be focused on helping them help the most people, not making money or breaking even. If the library loses money, so what? It’s not a government-run bookstore. It’s a public repository of knowledge.
Go to the public library, and be glad it exists.
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