Public space in the United States has always been a space of conflict. Libraries are no exception. Some on the Left celebrate libraries as egalitarian public spaces. They would not be completely wrong. Yet even these spaces reflect the cruel realities of racial capitalism in the United States. After all, they collaborate with police departments, and their workers see their patrons as customers. Libraries exist as a place of contradiction in the American wasteland.
When I say American wasteland, I am talking about the current version of American society we find ourselves in. We do not live in a land of opportunity and promise but a land of exploitation, alienation, and violence. I owe the phrase to Idris Robinson from his essay “How It Might Should Be Done” which was a series of theses about the George Floyd rebellion. The library and library workers occupy a strange position within the American wasteland.
One might argue that libraries are some of the most egalitarian institutions in American society. They are one of the few public spaces where you do not have to purchase anything. You can use the bathroom freely. Libraries provide numerous services such as access to free information, WiFi, and computers which are necessities for daily life in the digital age.
The library is a place for the elderly to receive help with computers, for youth to play video games for hours on end, and for people of all ages to discover new ideas. Creativity and exploration are critical to the human spirit, and libraries remain an essential part of pursuing our dreams. Libraries offer ways to explore the world and ourselves through books, films, TV, the internet, and various other mediums. And it is all free! As creativity and exploration increasingly become domains exclusive to the wealthy, libraries provide inspiration and materials in the commons.
As the houseless population in this country continues to rise, libraries become refuges for people facing the horrific conditions of racial capitalism and the pandemic. This cannot be discounted. Libraries, in many senses, become stand-ins for the social services that were meant to manage the people exploited and oppressed by racial capitalism.
Libraries have always been sites of exclusion and segregation despite their noble goal of being a public space. During the 1960s freedom movement, Black people and their fellow travelers took part in direct action campaigns to desegregate these spaces such as the sit campaigns of the Greenville Eight in South Carolina or the Tougaloo Nine at Jackson Mississippi Public Library. In 2018, the ALA issued a formal apology for the wrongs committed to African-Americans in Segregated public libraries. While de jure segregation has now fallen away, libraries still exist and hierarchies persist within the realm of racial capitalism despite their egalitarian character.
In more current periods, Library boards are aware of this and are taking steps to make these spaces less egalitarian. I was in New York City with a friend visiting an old library that they used to spend time in. The library had been redone to make it less accessible to houseless people. It looked less like a library and more like an Apple Store. The egalitarian nature of libraries is becoming consumed by the never-ending power of capital. There cannot be shelves that patrons can hide in or sleep behind. Libraries must now be bright, cheery, and full of librarians acting like customer service representatives. I suppose to some degree, this was always true. However, with the advent of neoliberal capitalism, every aspect of life has become subject to the market. Deeper than that, the library becomes a site for the security state. Libraries have uncomfortable relationships with the police and state security apparatuses. The police often murder the people they are called to “help” as we see repeatedly. It seems contradictory that libraries are tied to the police, while in some sense, the history of racial violence in libraries is evident that these spaces have never been purely egalitarian in their origins.
These are all realities we have to contend with in our lives. Like many on the Left, I often feel nihilistic about the future. In some ways, the future looks bleak for libraries. They will continue to be defunded, replaced by Amazon kiosks, or exist as hubs for the security state to monitor poor people. Public libraries with good resources will only be accessible to the rich and powerful, which becomes increasingly true as the world continues to spin on its axis. It is easy and reasonable to be negative.
Despite this, I think that the best parts of libraries could represent a way towards a communal life. The nature of libraries as institutions based upon sharing and free access is important. We organize our society along the basis of security and property. If we decide to reorganize our society, I think that we should take inspiration from the ethics of libraries. Free access to information and the small times where we hold our lives in common within the space of the library should extend to every part of society. There must be free access to housing, healthcare, and food. Ideally, a society organized like a library would mean that everyone would have their place and feel welcome.
**This article was updated at 12:48 pm on 01/19/2022.**
Luke is another 20-something floating around in the American Wasteland. A recent Haverford College grad, he studied political science and black studies with a focus on black political theory. He is interested in writing and speculating about racial capitalism, the decline of American society, youth culture, DIY music, traveling and everything else. He also makes music under his moniker Huey, The Cosmonaut. He's passionate about space cowboys, martial arts, hard cider and audiobooks.