Why Is New York City Planning to Sell and Shrink Its Libraries?

Defend our libraries, don't defund them. . . . . fund 'em, don't plunder 'em

Mayor Bloomberg defunded New York libraries at a time of increasing public use, population growth and increased city wealth, shrinking our library system to create real estate deals for wealthy real estate developers at a time of cutbacks in education and escalating disparities in opportunity. It’s an unjust and shortsighted plan that will ultimately hurt New York City’s economy and competitiveness.

It should NOT be adopted by those we have now elected to pursue better policies.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Sermonizing In Brooklyn Heights About Amazon (you know That “book seller”), Technology and Consumerism

Ana Levy-Lyons delivering her sermon on Amazon on November 11, 2018 at First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Brooklyn
In New York City everybody is talking about Amazon now because of the plans unveiled to locate Amazon offices (with the piling on of huge public subsidies to the already wealthy) in Queens, New York, Long Island City.

Maybe people should also be talking about Amazon because it is the Christmas season and Amazon is raking it in.

November 11th there was a sermon at the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Brooklyn.  It was in Brooklyn Heights, just around the corner and only a stone’s throw from the location of the second biggest library in Brooklyn, the central destination Business, Career and Education library that was sold off to build a luxury tower. The sermon by Minister Ana Levy-Lyons was about what it means for Amazon to be taking over.  You can find the full text of the sermon as well as listen to it here- Sermon: Technology & Religion: God As Consumer, November 11, 2018.

If you were there listening to the sermon you would have recognized in it some of the themes we have been writing about in Citizens Defending Libraries. In some respects the most up-to-date coverage of concerns about Amazon surfaced here in connection with books and the libraries has to do with the control of information: Amazon’s collection of information about all of its customers; questions about how it accelerated into total dominance of the market so fast while starting with the sale of books—  Nearly half of all books, both print and digital, are now sold by Amazon. . . . 

That statistic does not bode well for ensuring free speech or unfettered public discourse.  That concern amplifies especially when one considers how Amazon, including its ties to the internet, has significant roots in the defense and surveillance industry.  National Notice updated a Citizens Defending Libraries post publishing an article that addresses this: Interesting to Think That it All Began With BOOKS? Except That Amazon and World’s Wealthiest Man (As We Know Jeff Bezos Today) Didn’t Exactly Begin That Way. . . Saturday, November 3, 2018. – That was before the announcement of the plan to bring a complex of subsidized Amazon offices to Queens.       

But there are other concerns about what Amazon represents, concerns that we have also raised about the commercializing privatization of the libraries, turning libraries into consumer- and private enterprise-driven environments.  They are also to be worried about.  These are the kind of concerns about libraries that have been raised in the books about the dangerous transfigurations of libraries written by John E. Buschman and Ed D’Angelo, respectively:  “Dismantling the Public Sphere- Situating and Sustaining Librarianship In the Age of the New Public Philosophy,” and “Barbarians at the Gates of the Public Library: How Postmodern Consumer Capitalism Threatens Democracy, Civil Education and the Public Good.”  *  We've written about these books previously.

Ana Levy-Lyons began her November Amazon sermon vividly referencing Amazons’ ruthless strongarm tactics, but immediately segued to reference Amazon’s allure, dressed up in the notion that Amazon serves an ideal, consumerism, specifically that Amazon’s ruthlessness is permitted, even embraced because it serves:
    . . .  one thing, one shimmering, grand ideal: what the consumer wants. And what does the consumer want? Cheap goods. We want to buy stuff – a lot of stuff – and pay as little as possible. Amazon gets us there. . . .  it is quick, it’s easy, and it gets delivered to our door. What’s not to like?
Low prices: it is hard to object or criticize low prices when about half the population of the United States is so financially on the edge, living paycheck to paycheck, that they are not in a financial position to cover basic expenses if confronted with an emergency like the need for unexpected medical care, and they don’t have enough money to come up with even a $400 emergency expense.  And it is hard to, at the same time, remain conscious enough under these circumstances to factor in how Amazon’s subtractions from the economy are actually contributing to this desperation for those low prices.  (As we were writing this post a New York Times Sunday op-ed was published making exactly this point.)

But in her exceedingly eloquent sermon Ana Levy-Lyons went on to speak of how the reduction that redefines us as just mere consumers in the Amazon world flattens our dimensionality as human beings, so that we thus lack the “larger, fuller expressions of our selfhood,” and are reduced to the part of us that just “takes from the world.”  The sermon delivered in a church and Rev. Levy-Lyons’ diagnosis included her verdict that was a de-spiritualization.*
(* Shades of Rev. Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping, and his choir, who in all their Hallelujah glory have aided our library fight mightily on many occasions.)
Of the list of illustrative examples she offered, most resonant for library defenders and those steeped in the world of books was that, as “consumers we want to buy books and music as cheaply as possible,” but as full-fledged “spiritual beings having a human experience on this earth . .  what we may really want is for writers and musicians to be able to make a living.”

Levy-Lyons also observed that this lack of human dimensionality is associated with a dementia-ality, a dementia that skews reality, that in a mixed-up way views the raising up the market forces of consumerism as paramount as an expression of freedom, democracy at work, if you will, even as an  expression of our individuality.

In his book, “Barbarians at the Gates of the Public Library,” Ed D’Dangelo discussed the threat these same ideas pose to the tradition of libraries (p.107) saying the “genius of market populism” is that it is sold “to the public as a form of liberation,” and, because it is supposedly inherently virtuous, the dictates of the market should therefore be allowed to control the managing all society’s choices, including with respect to the delivery of information.  But D’Angelo notes that the market does not necessarily promote democracy at all, and that these shifts of decision making over to the private sector mean that “in a very real sense we have returned to the feudal ages when power was private and the public realm had fallen into decay . .”
One only has to take a step back to remind oneself that, as we witness Amazon quickly making its owner Jeff Bezos the wealthiest man in the world seemingly out of nowhere, plus the accompanying and very fast escalation of wealth inequality during these recent years, the results of unbridled capitalistic forces increasingly deliver more astounding inequality.  The results are far from egalitarian.  If the “freedom” offered in our market-structured consumer economy is to “vote” with our dollars, the opportunity to vote is extraordinarily unequal.  Not only doesn’t the one-man-one-vote ideal apply to the marketplace, but with economic inequality spiraling out of control, the power of the ballot box has been substantially diluted by the influence of money in politics.

D’Angelo, argues for libraries as the kind of public sphere realms essential to support true democracy; he says (p. 117) that “democracy requires rational deliberation in a public domain about matters of common interest” and that “even ideal markets fail to construct public spaces or to recognize common interests.”

Other commentators like Nathan Robinson, editor-in-chief at Current Affairs magazine, posit that the example of properly functioning libraries, which are traditionally egalitarian, publicly controlled and not controlled by a company, are regarded as a threat seen as “dangerous to a certain kind of a free-market orthodoxy” by those who want everything filtered through market capitalism structures.

That trepidation and urge to preclude or ward off such examples of successful alternatives to evermore pervasive market forces, whether it be a consciously developed strategy, or a response to subliminal impulse, may explain the efforts of monied interests to dismantle traditional libraries and recast them in a capitalist mode reflecting, to use John Buschman’s words (Dismantling the Public Sphere, p. 8), a “radically market-oriented public philosophy toward public cultural institutions.”

Flipping the question around, Buschman asks: If libraries are not providing an alternative model, are not serving democratic ideals, “What public purpose is served by public funding of” projects that “are imitative of the private sector?  What right do we have to public funding to compete with [other?] businesses.  Perhaps more importantly, does society need another model of media-dominated, entertainment oriented consumerism in its public institutions?”

Buschman suggests that the key to attaining the equilibrium whereby libraries will provide the needed democratic public sphere is to avoid the “‘steering mechanisms’ of money and power (i.e. corporate-dominated mass media).”

Buschman, serving up themes very much aligned with Ms. Levy-Lyons' sermon, writes (p. 121) that essentially the idea of a consumerish “give ‘em what they want” focus of librarianship, putting up “a large number of `hot’ items on the shelf to compete with bookstore chains” and quantifying the value of a library only through popularity ignores “merit or lasting value” in curating selections.  While not arguing that libraries should be unresponsive to the public, Buschman says that “customer-driven librarianship abandons a number of public sphere roles.”  “The first of these,” he says, is “our role in organized social memory and rational discourse in a democracy.”  He says that the consumer driven fixation on “exclusively what is popular at the moment” by definition “abandons the public sphere goal of a plurality of ‘voices’ and viewpoints on anything not ‘hot’ to a present or future reader.”  He reminds us that “there is a reason some services are in the public sector; their value is very real but difficult to measure and requires a different kind of judgement and management.”

Levy-Lyons similarly bemoans the lack of collaborative curation and creation of value with the Amazon/Bezos “populist” vision being an “anti-expert, anti-intellectual” belief that, high ideals should be set aside “as a matter of principle” and that “the customers around whom the world spins” should “have the final word.”
But returning to the question of democracy, freedom . . .  as well as whether the consumer really does have the last word in what Levy-Lyons calls this “free market ideology on steroids”:  Levy-Lyons makes the case that while the public is sold the notion that Amazon and the market represent “free choice,” that’s hardly the case:
    . . .  here’s the irony: as humans – in our full selfhood as humans – we have free will. But as consumers today, we are far from free. Our consumer desires are manipulated and even manufactured from scratch by corporations. This has always happened to some extent, but today’s technologies allow that manipulation to get deep inside us, using data about our habits and preferences to craft unique campaigns tailored to evoke our particular longing for products. Virtual assistants, like Amazon’s “Alexa,” and smart appliances – entire smart homes! – anticipate, suggest, and even order for you the thing you’re gonna’ want next.
You can read or listen to Ms. Levy-Lyons sermon in full (about 1,100 words), for her examples respecting the implications of this in terms of the devastation of our environment, our politics, nationally and also around the world (Brazil, and perhaps she should now add Andalusia).

As for expressions of individuality as another likely barometer of freedom, Rev. Levy-Lyons suggests that individuality is also suppressed in the Amazon controlled market world. As an example that should particularly concern those who care about books and book culture, Levy-Lyons suggests that the Amazon changes that are bleeding money out of the book world (with the consequent layoff of marketing and sales people and editors and the shrinking of author royalties and advances) mean that, “publishers are less able to take risks on first-time authors or authors with some off-beat weird idea.”  She says that these changes are continuing to happen so fast that she knows “for a fact that” if she had pitched her book, No Other Gods: The Politics of the Ten Commandments,” even one year later, her “publisher would not have bought it.”  Thus “authors are finding it harder and harder to make a living.”

In her sermon Ms. Levy-Lyons recommended and encouraged her audience to go to a bookstore to buy Franklin Foer’s “World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech” (2017).  Quite possibly, she drew upon it a fair amount when she composed her sermon.  The Penguin (its publisher) site for the book (or you could dare to go to Amazon) says in the overview it provides:
    Over the past few decades there has been a revolution in terms of who controls knowledge and information. This rapid change has imperiled the way we think. . . .

    . . . There have been monopolists in the past but today's corporate giants have far more nefarious aims. They’re monopolists who want access to every facet of our identities and influence over every corner of our decision-making.
That’s ominous when you think, as we noted at the outset, that Amazon is selling nearly half the books in the country, that it collects enough information to know almost “every fact of our identities and . . decision-making,” and that with the roots of its origin and plus continuing links to the military and surveillance industries, it chose to launch itself by venturing into the book industry, which it both decimated and now dominates.

The hope that Re. Levy-Lyons offered to confront Amazon is to act collectively, to stop viewing ourselves as competing individuals and that we can instead create our reality collectively.  She gave the example of a collective of antiquarian book sellers that acted together in concert to protect one of their group when Amazon was victimizing them.

Of course, that acting together collectively in concert requires the public realm, public domain spaces for “rational deliberation” and public discourse about “matters of common interest” that writers like D’Angelo and Bushman are reminding us that we need, and reminding us that these are reasons we need traditional libraries organized so that’s what they provide. . .

. .   These public realm spaces, the same spaces so valuable and essential to us if we are to stand up to forces like Amazon, are the same spaces that are under threat from forces like Amazon.*  But, for the time being, we still have our churches and houses of worship.
(* Footnote and PS: And that is why the  New York Times architect critic Michael Kimmelman was wildly misguided when, responding to the announced arrival of Amazon, he suggested Amazon involve itself in providing our public libraries.  (Amazon is already involved anyway.)  See: Michael Kimmelman’s Unfortunate Suggestion That Amazon Invest In NYC’s Public libraries (per Eric Klinenberg)- See: “Amazon’s HQ2 Will Benefit From New York City. But What Does New York Get?”)

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