To the Editors The Crimson
There is a new feeling in our state and city, and it is not a very nice one. With deep concern, and even alarm. I see it filtering into all levels of our society and permeating our thinking and our attitudes toward each other. This feeling became actualized first in Proposition 13 in California and recently in Proposition 2 1/2 in Massachusetts. With startling success, speed and vigor, the Proposition 2 1/2 philosophy has penetrated the thinking process of many of our public officla, and citizens library trustees and librarians.
Proposition 2 1/2, in its worst form, is distorting the relations between one structure of our society and another, putting one group against the next, and turning our classless society into one of adversaries aligned one against the next.
The proponents of 2 1/2 and/or of user fees are not responding wisely or with complete awareness to the implications of the situation. Their moves for radical changes in the fiscal support base of public library service is appalling. almost unbelievable, in fact. Libraries are public institutions and were established for the public good (pro bono publico). It is important, indeed essential, to understand it and know how to handle its arugments.
For almost 150 years, we have extolled the virtues of, the meaning, the essence of the free public library to the democratic process. The philosophy of education and free access to information is the foundation of our educational system, and was the impetus for the American Free Library Movement. Enlightenment for all, in free and ready access to and service at your public library is the birthright of every citizen. The advocates of a user-fee threaten this philosophy. I see our tradition and heritage in grave danger.
Historically, access to libraries, book and information was restricted to a particular class who were "worthy" and capable. Access was based on birth, on membership, on religious affiliation or some other form of class affillation. The free public library has flouished since those dark ages. The public library has become an integral part of our way of life. The user-fee proponents are seriously questioning the whole concept of the free public library, and there is grave danger abroad.
Any compromise for a user-fee structure is just plain unacceptable. In effect. it is saying the poor, the disadvantaged, the middle-class be damned that those who are not financially able should not be allowed access to the service of a research library. Ready reference, and recreation is all they can use. The message is clear, in effect, it is "you are poor, therefore, you are unworthy. Stay in your class and don't aspire to special knowledge for by your bature your are not capable o tasting the pleasures of learning-research."
This message is, to say the least, a strong discouragement to upward striving. The urban or rural youngster, the immigrant, the dropout already look at the library, the research library, with awe. Unless encouraged to use these facilities, these tools of upward mobility, they willnever even approach them, and simply regard libraries, research, higher education, as part of the "other world" and those who are a part of this other world as enemies. The final discouragement would be to say "you're not going to want to use this anyway. So what if we charge a fee to those who can afford it."
User-fee advocates have made their point. Once user-fees becomes a part of library fiscal support, the municipal politician will have a field day. He will demand more support from this direction and provide less support from tax monies. The argument of practicality will have won over the fundamental principles of the democratic tradition of free access to information-knowledge. As a substitute, there will be a politician deciding who is worthy or capable of using these tax supported and user-fee supported facilities. The real and only challenge is to maks the library and its services an even more fundamental necessity in the lives of all of us, to turn the argument of selfishness around and demonstrate that self-interest is best served by supporting the common interest, by making people think about what happens when they lock up all the books. Joseph G. Sakey, Director Cambridge Public Library