The Post Office Is a Library Issue: Public Goods Under Threat | Editorial

Because information is critical to an informed electorate, the government formed an institution to ensure affordable access and avoid censorship. As a result, a high literacy rate led to economic growth. I’m speaking, of course, of the Postal Service Act of 1792, decades before the first modern public library opened in Peterborough, NH.

Meredith Schwartz head shotBecause information is critical to an informed electorate, the government formed an institution to ensure affordable access and avoid censorship. As a result, a high literacy rate led to economic growth.

I’m speaking, of course, of the Postal Service Act of 1792, decades before the first modern public library opened in Peterborough, NH.

While both have long left behind ponies for websites, the post office and public library still have much in common. They are both public goods, with a focus on delivering equitable service to all, even when reaching the farthest rural households doesn’t make commercial sense. They are both deeply concerned with user privacy. They both play a crucial role in a healthy democracy, from the census to news to ballots. They both help users access healthcare, apply for jobs, and connect to far-flung loved ones. They both sometimes take on additional roles to meet community needs, such as post office banking. They both prioritize books and reading—witness discounted “media mail” rates—but deliver a far broader range of needs and wants.

And they both suffer from periodic calls to “run it like a business.” As my predecessor John Berry III said, “that option is unavailable because it is irrelevant.” He was speaking of libraries, but today the Postal Service is under such attack—in large part from within and the top.

Library workers are well-positioned to understand the implications. Mail sorting machines have been ripped out. Library colleagues with automated sorters, would you choose to throw them away and go back to sorting books by hand? How about sending courier vans early and empty—would that help interlibrary loan times improve? It’s true that cost per checkout would go down if you cut out bookmobiles and outreach librarians. But some patrons just wouldn’t get service anymore.

There’s even a “who uses the mail anymore now that we have the internet” argument, all too familiar to public librarians, even as mail delivery is a literal lifeline for many who depend on it for medicine, Social Security checks, and even food—especially during the pandemic.

Many libraries rely on the post office directly to receive shipments of books, and to send books, surveys, and marketing materials by mail. And of course, the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled and its member libraries deliver and return Braille books, audiobooks, and playback machines for free through the mail. We also know how invariably libraries are asked to pick up the slack of diminishing social services. If the post office is gutted, it’s all too likely that librarians will end up selling money orders from the circulation desk.

But there are bigger issues than the practical in play. As a matter of principle, libraries should stand up for the very concept of a public good—and for exposing and explaining the fiscal choices that threaten them.

The U.S. Postal Service is required by Congress to pre-pay its pension and medical obligations and is capped in its ability to raise rates on market dominant products. That’s not necessarily inappropriate, but that’s because the post office, though self-funding since its 1970s reorganization, is still an arm of government. To demand business results without business tools is disingenuous at best.

The argument is much like that directed at colleges. While there’s a lot wrong with adjunctification, blaming administrators for management bloat or an amenities arms race obscures the main story: massive cuts to public investment in higher education. Though U.S. libraries have so far avoided drastic cuts, we see a similar narrative playing out in England’s public libraries.

As a society, we once believed in building and funding institutions that would last and, in rhetoric at least, served everyone. We can’t ignore the ways those institutions radically failed to live up to that promise—segregated libraries being only one egregious example. But the solution is to redouble our efforts to make good on those ideals, not to abandon them. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night will keep post office employees from serving the public—but politics might. Neither coronavirus nor wildfires nor anything else 2020 might throw at us should keep the library field from having their back.

Edited to Add: Library workers who want to support the USPS can do so by signing Library PAC EveryLibrary’s Contact Congress petition here: https://action.everylibrary.org/usps_petition.

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Meredith Schwartz

mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-in-Chief of Library Journal.

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Nicole Phillips

Such a great article calling attention to this era of extinction of services like the Post Office and the Library as far as loans and services go or the equipment used by employees to make performance more efficient. I will never forget when I read they were thinking of cutting delivery times at the Post Office. I thought unbelievable and I did blame digital use on the internet for it. I did not really understand how libraries worked until I started using they more and putting books on hold and stuff. What many patrons may not understand is libraries may order different books and libraries share books as well. These books have to be transported, if you want to borrow them and the selection is at a different library. These services are vital and important within our communities. I appreciate digital access and what it brings but I also want to be able to walk into my local library and use the services there, checking out books the old fashion way. Using the library and Post Office and donating to causes that support these organizations will keep them around and prevent the extinction of services and ultimately loss of jobs. We have to show the value by using them. Digital is a way to supplement and even out the flow of services but it should not be used or seen as a primary option for services from either of these organizations. We need our Libraries and Post Offices and the workers serving in them need their jobs too.

Posted : Oct 12, 2020 10:20


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