It was during an era much like ours when the public library became an American institution, according to Barbara Fister in How Libraries Became Public (Inside Higher Ed, April 26, 2017):
I find it intriguing that the American public library grew out of an era that has many similarities to this one – the last quarter of the 19th century, when large corporations owned by the super-rich had gained the power to shape society and fundamentally change the lives of ordinary people. It was also a time of new communication technologies, novel industrial processes, and data-driven management methods that treated workers as interchangeable cogs in a Tayloristic, efficient machine. Stuff got cheaper and more abundant, but wages fell and employment was precarious, with mass layoffs common. The financial sector was behaving badly, too, leading to cyclical panics and depressions. The gap between rich and poor grew, with unprecedented levels of wealth concentrated among a tiny percentage of the population. It all sounds strangely familiar.
From the conclusion of the Inside Higher Ed article:
This [19th century constructive] response to turbulent social stress would be unimaginable today. President Trump’s proposed budget completely defunds the Institute of Museum and Library Services and cuts LSTA grants to local libraries. Our new FCC commissioner has cut out a program that made internet access affordable for resource-poor schools and libraries, rolled back privacy protections so ISPs can get into the targeted advertising game, and now is attacking net neutrality rules so that our telecoms will be able to favor their content and limit access to competitors’ – or to sites that aren’t run by deep-pocket corporations.
What made the vision of “free to all” so attractive in the late 19th century? Why now do we have to pay for “free” information services with our privacy and, ultimately, our freedom? And, given this dismal state of affairs, why do free public libraries persist?