I’m a true believer in the “common good”. The common good is the notion that a community builds shared assets, typically from taxes or other public revenue, that are shared with, available to, and enjoyed by all members of the community. The common good is founded on the human realization that by pooling resources we can be, and ultimately are, stronger as a community than as individuals. The common good forms one of the “core values of librarianship” as defined by the American Library Association, and one of the core values of my own personal philosophy and worldview. I’d be a true believer in the common good if I weren’t a librarian; my being a librarian only solidifies my resolve on this issue.
Many assets can be thought of as “common goods”: Public roads, public parks, public libraries, public schools, colleges, and universities, public hospitals, social security, public housing, supplemental nutrition assistance programs, public health care, and the like. Although we may lag behind our peers, the United States of America has a long history of creating these assets to serve the common good. These assets benefit everyone, and we are all richer, more prosperous, and better off because of them. But the common good appears to be under constant attack in contemporary America.
Much of the current political debates over the Affordable Care Act, funding of Medicare and Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Social Security, and the social safety net in general, at the federal, state, and local levels, is about the common good. Whenever the citizens of a municipality vote to deny funding to schools, parks, or libraries a piece of the common good dies in that community. Whenever a state legislature votes to defund student aid or education programs, the common good dies in that state. Whenever the federal government shuts down over fiscal matters, or cuts funding for social programs, education, health, and the welfare of the citizens of this country, the common good slips away.
For at least as long as I have been a librarian (15 years), there have been debates over the “future of the library” and whether public libraries are a necessary common good in our communities. On Sunday, a post in TechCrunch, a technology news site, mused about the “end of the library” stating the author’s assertions that the usefulness of the library had ended when “the internet has replaced the importance of libraries as a repository for knowledge” and “digital distribution has replaced the role of a library as a central hub for obtaining the containers of such knowledge”. While I do not disagree with the author that the internet and digital resources have changed the information landscape, I am an ardent believer, with many others both inside and outside librarianship, that libraries will and must remain to serve the common good.
There is no denying that there is a “digital divide” in this country. The gap between affluent “haves” who can afford technology and access to information on the internet and through e-books, and poorer “have nots” that do not have the means to afford this technology or access is growing. Libraries often function as a means of bridging this divide and ensuring that all citizens have equal access to contemporary information sources regardless of their “ability to pay”. Libraries have always lived out this mission to serve the common good.
Although the concept of the common good has taken a beating in recent years, I think that the future of the library and other assets that meet the common good are strong. But the common good needs people to assert its usefulness in the community and advocate for community assets that serve this common good. If we do not nurture the common good in our communities, it will wither and die. As librarians, we can become advocates, not only for our libraries, but fall all assets in our communities that serve the common good. We need to turn our anger from news of the demise of the common good into positive action supporting it on our communities. Let us all believe in the power of community and coming together to make something greater than we can as individuals, and spread this belief among our patrons, friends, neighbors, and communities. I’m a true believer in the common good, and want you to be a true believer as well.