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.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

It's Not Just The Real Estate Industry Threatening Libraries: Examining The Panoply of Other Threats


While most New Yorkers are attuned to the power and excesses of the city real estate industry and therefore easily understand its role as a key motivator in the assault on libraries, it's unfortunately naive to believe that only the real estate industry has an agenda that is adverse to the tradition of continuing libraries as the democratic commons we have known them to be.

This gets us into some other big questions.

Control of Information

Does dumbing down the public make sense, is it truly workable if you want an effective democracy?  The availability and control of information, including in libraries as copious storehouses of information, has always long disconcerted authoritarians.  For instance, is it surprising to know that Senator Joseph McCarthy exercised his influence to ban from U.S. controlled libraries the music and scores of the "Fanfare For The Common Man" composer Aaron Copeland, because McCarthy believed this quintessentially American composer's music would be a bad influence the public's political perspectives?  Hitler and Chile's Augusto Pinochet following the totalitarian model, burned books.  Michael Moore posits that closing libraries as part of efforts to dumb down the country helped get Trump elected.

No doubt there are those for whom it would be preferable if information in libraries was tidily circumscribed so that it just slipstreams comfortably behind the limited thinking and reporting of the corporate conglomerate controlled national media.  That's a corporate media which among other things and by example underreports the climate change crisis, and which drastically reduced reporting on climate change in 2016, the year of the national election.

It is frankly unnerving that at a time when climate change is ever more clearly an existential issue respecting the human race's very survival we are shutting down the largest science library in New York City.  It is unnerving that books pertaining to climate change are vanishing from the libraries, and that we are doing this at the very same time our access to alternative sources of information about global warming and its environmental havoc is threatened.  Our concerns should mount further when there are simultaneously so many other attacks on science and on factual reality being launched at the same time.  And meanwhile, those with money look for other ways to silence voices they don't want heard.

While the tradition has been to protect and preserve the information entrusted to libraries, information on the internet can be startlingly evanescent, its continued existence subject to decisions made by whim or out of wrath about what the public should see.

Recently, sites on the internet that were heavily relied upon for years of local urban news (DNAInfo and Gothamist in NYC) disappeared when their billionaire and Trump-supporting conservative Republican owner, Joe Ricketts eliminated them together with all their history and content. This was immediately after he bought one of them up and the reportorial staff voted to unionize, which he opposed.  But even before the unionization occurred, news and information on the site written about Mr. Rickets, the owner acquiring the Gothamist site, was eliminated or rewritten.  Ownership (increasingly consolidated in a few wealthy people) can mean everything: Billionaire Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson bought his hometown Las Vegas newspaper to get it to cease printing "nasty coverage" in it.  Billionaire Peter Thiel funded someone else's lawsuit to bankrupt Gawker reportedly because it published information about him he didn't like is now trying to buy gawker.com it is believed so that he can delete all the reporting on its site.

What questions are raised now about Time/Life and its ownership when the Koch brothers circle flashing their stalking cash?

Librarians assert more altruistic values.  It was a heroic librarian mobilizing a network of librarians that saved a book Michael Moore had just written from being pulped before release (turned into "Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly books") by his own suppressing publisher. That publisher thought that the advent of 9/11 meant that people should not say things critical of George W. Bush.  The rescued book, "Stupid White Men ...And Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation!" spent weeks at the top of the best seller lists.

But another publisher did suppress and never issue, pulling from the shelves (for 26 years), an ultimately influential book about how JFK had decided to withdraw from Vietnam just before he was assassinated.  That was despite the book's being reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review Section by Kennedy special assistant and historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. who also said "This commanding essay in critical history is the most authoritative account anywhere of President Kennedy's Vietnam policy and it is fascinating reading as well." Plus it was endorsed by former CIA head William Colby.  The book, confirmed and fleshed out accounts that economist and Kennedy advisor Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith had shared with his son, professor James Galbraith.  Accordingly, the book has also been championed by him.  When the NSA failed to stop the book with unsuccessful claims its information was classified, the publisher just cooperatively made the book unavailable.

Books and the fact that people still dependably read them can be a catalytic part of the media ecosystem.  The New York Times cooperated with the George W. Bush administration to suppress what was ultimately a Pulitzer Prize-winning story by reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau about the administration’s secret illegal and unconstitutional surveillance of the American public.  That story got published by the New York Times only because Risen was about to publish a book including it, but the Times, in suppressive mode until the end, published the story only after New York Times senior editors expressed anger about Risen’s book being published together with their view that Risen didn’t have the right to publish it.  It can be considered a misfortune, however, that the Times suppression of the story caused it to be run after the its publication could have been of consequence in the 2004 Bush Kerry election.

Wikipedia furnishes a list of books famously banned by governments around the world throughout history, but books and the controversial and potentially catalytic information they provide can be very effectively suppressed without ever making that officially banned list. 

Does information representing our history disappear from physical archives, like our national archives?  And, if such losses occur, what does one hope to do about it?: Normally, one hopes to replace the information from other places it is stored.  When some of us toured the National Library of Australia, the librarian escorting us explained how Australia's libraries had been a source of materials to replace what was purged from the German libraries during the Nazi era.

While robustly maintained libraries safeguard against loss, downsizing of libraries can be the cause of it.  When a new library director rapidly, unnecessarily, and without librarian consultation, discarded thousands of books (39,000) from California's Berkley Public Library, books on social issues and activism that disappeared in the purge included Judi Bari’s “Timber Wars.”  Judi Bari was an environmental activist importantly active in that Northern California region who paid a price when Bari, apparently under federal surveillance, was severely disabled by a suspicious, unsolved car bombing that was probably inadequately investigated by the FBI.

Digital records are much more easily rewritten or quickly deleted. Extensive documentation of war atrocities in such places as Syria and the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Burma, documentation that could be used to prosecute war criminals have been abruptly eliminated by the sweep of "algorithm." Other digital changes have undercut people who relied on the services of YouTube and Facebook expecting to store preserve essential information about the abuse of human rights.

The Internet And Digital as Business

As the world speeds into digital, it is important to recognize the pull and tugs of what the internet corporations would like, including reasons for wanting things to go digital.  There are reasons why, when just five or six (as of 2017) people control as much wealth as half of the rest of the world's population, that Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon (and Washington Post) owner Jeff Bezos, and Microsoft's Bill Gates are three for them (with another Carlos Slim Helu incidentally, as part of his media holdings, being the largest shareholder of the New York Times.  Those reasons coincide with the reasons Apple, Google/Alphabet, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft are all vying (along with Exxon Mobile) for the spot as largest U.S. company.

 . . . Think where all this money comes from.  There is, of course, the ubiquitous advertising, as the pop-up ads that saturate far-flung corners of the internet will remind you, just as advertising saturates the monopolistically owned TV and radio airwaves.  There is also the data-scraping.  As the "old internet saw" was quoted when Google was wiring all of NYC's streets for wireless internet "for free": "If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product."  What the private internet companies know about you helps target you for underwear ads (and/or whatever else you were last shopping for) and  guesses with remarkable accuracy about your health and medical conditions, etc. in increasingly fine grained detail . . .

With such fine grained data about you available, being steered in your internet shopping means book recommendations from Amazon . . . And it can also mean, banishing once customary price certainty, that less budget conscious or wealthier shoppers get steered to higher priced headphones or are told the same vacation or hotel will cost them more.

Social media too and its effects are subject to being manipulated.  Google, at least effectively, became a political censor when it reconfigured its algorithm so that the World Socialist website experienced  a 70% drop in visits while Google redirected search traffic to go to major corporate news sites (the New York Times, MSNBC?) to learn about learn about Trotsky and Trotskyism.

Facebook's disturbing proclivities were witnessed when it created and offered in countries like India "Free Basics," a supposedly "free" "little web" that turned third world users into largely passive consumers of mostly western corporate content.  Critics pointed out that the Facebook initiative, giving the ability to scrape data from all the users, masqueraded as philanthropy while what Facebook's Zuckerberg euphemistic and benign touted as "internet for all" really meant "Facebook for all."

In Cathy O'Neil's "Weapons of Math Destruction (How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy," you can read about how during the 2010 and 2012 elections Facebook conducted voter turnout experiments and concluded that when they targeted 61 million of their users they were able to increase voter turnout among that group by an estimated and very significant 340,000.  O'Neil points out that: "At the same time, Facebook researchers were studying how different types of updates influenced people's voting behavior."  One of Facebook's researchers in another experiment concluded that increasing hard news in people's news feeds (as opposed to "cat videos and graduation announcements") increased voter turnout.  And in 2012 Facebook experiments on 680,000 users led it to conclude that by doctoring the users' news feeds allowed Facebook to affect their users' moods transferring in the words of Facebook's conclusion "emotional states" to others "leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness."  Further, O'Neil points to research of Karrie Karahalios that most people are unaware that Facebook tinkers their news feeds, believing incorrectly "that the system instantly shared everything they posted with all their friends."

The fine grained data about you can be sold.  Author, mathematician and big data expert Cathy O'Neil has called the internet "the ultimate profiling machine."  Congress just voted ( very unpopularly and without public comment) this spring to allow everyone's internet providers unfettered freedom to sell users' personal data.  The next big question is the extent to which social media's ability to manipulate will also be marketed and sold.

Privatized Political Advantage

Among those buying the data are political parties and their campaign operations looking to control the elected seats of government. Now with unprecedented insight into your preferences, those actors and operatives use the data to decide, with tools like gerrymandering, how much your vote should or should not be allowed to count.  With "voter preference files" that contain tens of thousands of "sets of data points" they have graduated from "microtargeting specific groups" to "nanotargeting" with different kinds of messages (whether true or not) designed elicit particular `emotional responses' from voters.  "Pay to sway" services supply a smorgasbord of fabricated realities at itemized prices, polluting for those who occupy them, the social media and internet spheres.  Meanwhile algorithms assist as “the lies, the junk, the misinformation” of traditional propaganda widespread online are targeted at individuals.

Owning Ideas and Culture to Charge For Them

The content industry has its wants as well.  Its purveyors desire, for instance, to get the public out to the very latest movie you see touted on billboards, simultaneously on the sides of city buses, via the ads on Comedy Central and other channels, perhaps also boosted by a "sponsorship" mention on your local public radio station as it does featurette reporting about what endows the film with the latest topical interest to claim your attention. While the tales may be age-old and deeply embedded in our culture, Disney would no doubt prefer that such public domain stories as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," "Alice in Wonderland," "Sleeping Beauty," Pocahontas and John Smith, "Beauty and the Beast," "The Jungle Book, Treasure Island," and "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea"  (stories that all ought to be discoverable in any library) be experienced by the through the profit generating conduits of its perpetually extended copyright controlled versions.

In his "The Master Switch" history of the "information" industry and its penchant for monopolized control of what it delivers, Tim Wu helped explain how the post-2000 proliferation of super hero movies is driven by the fact that such copyright-owned characters (like "transformers") are much easier to control ownership of than "bankable stars" and how 21st Century film has become "much less predominantly a business of story-telling than it has been, and much more a species of advertisement, an exposure strategy for the underlying intellectual property [of those `characters']"

Theodore Geisel, better know as Dr. Seuss, was extremely reticent about commercializing his work. Very few adaptions of his work were created during his life.  His estate, since he died in 1991, is managing things differently now, so, for instance, you can now find his characters alongside the Marvel superheros at Universal's theme park in Orlando.  Does that mean that in "accordance with the reigning imperatives of marketing and brand extension" corporate adaptations of his work will, for instance, (with "Car chases!" etc.) bleed out the purity of the environmental message concerning "unchecked greed" of the "The Lorax."

Major media conglomerates want to do away with net neutrality. The reasons for major media conglomerates wanting to do away with net neutrality coincide in many respects with why a robust supply of libraries are not viewed as friendly to their business model.

A Reduction to Dollar$ Sense

. . Traditional libraries have always stood as models opposite to the concept that everything in the world, plus everything that ought to be prioritized and perpetually pushed to the fore should exist in stripped-down monetizable dimensions.  To evaluate the world exclusively in the very limited terms of seeing things in terms of just numbers or only following the money is, in an of itself, impoverishing.  A 2015 report published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review studied how the huge growth and overrepresentation in the percentage executives from the finance industry serving as board members and in positions of board leadership at America’s most influential nonprofits has been affecting the culture and dynamics of those institutions. It observed:
Numerous critics have written thoughtfully about the ways in which market-based thinking and approaches applied to the nonprofit sector provide false promise, with the potential to dilute charitable values, undermine long-term mission focus . . 
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson, speaking of the attack on our public universities when bean-counting "magnates of one sort or another" overconfident of their shrewdness to make the decisions at those institutions (an impulse "that’s part of the economics that’s dominant now") said: "It’s sort of like turning over our whole aesthetic sense to people who are color blind." . . Mathematically trained and eccentric Trump-financing hedge fund "Billionaire" Robert Mercer is reportedly absolutely merciless in his own blindness: Mercer is said to value people exclusively "on the basis of what they earn" thereby allowing him to believe that that schoolteachers earning "2 million times less" than he does are "2 million times less valuable" than he is.

Surveillance

The last big subject to mention bears a relationship to the first topic.  When the government, whoever is in charge, isn't actually preventing citizens from reading certain books it might proscribe, it can, nevertheless, be interested in surveiling what books and information members of the public are reading.  In theory, this could allow the government to identify a stray terrorist or two before they act, but, perhaps more meaningfully, it could allow identification of trends in public thinking.  And identified trends can be responded to, shaped or leaders at the forefront of them neutralized or co-opted.

The introduction of digital books and computers makes surveillance easier.  Social media allows trends to to be shaped and manipulated.

Not very long after the NYPL's board of trustees was advised of the expectation that change in federal surveillance law ("CALEA") might "require" the NYPL "to reengineer their Internet service facilities to enhance law enforcement's ability to monitor and intercept communications" the NYPL board hired Booz Allen Hamilton (known principally as a private surveillance firm, the "colossus" in the industry, working for the federal government which contracts out about 70% of the surveillance it does) to assist the trustees with their strategy of the sale and reformulating of libraries.  In consultation with Booz Allen, the NYPL made the decision to sell three major libraries, the Mid-Manhattan Library, the Donnell Library and the Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL).   In addition, the plan involved gutting the research stacks of the NYPL's 42nd Street Central Reference Library, which held three million books. Those books were most of, and what was once the core of, its research collection.

Ralph Nader has opined that it is a left/right issue, whether you are left or right on the political spectrum people don't want the government to search your library records without probable cause.
For complete information go back to our Citizens Defending Libraries Main Page (or to read through all the content of our Main Page in LONG FORM CLICK)

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