Libraries are Radical!

The Plan documents the ongoing adventures that arise from living a truly alternative lifestyle: two people in love, no children, one works for an income, the other works to realize an anarchist utopia, and the unifying force is a shared commitment to radical activism in all of its many forms.

Not only is the library a wicked cool place to hang out and get your learn on, but it is also one of the most radical places around. Libraries are so radical, in fact, that in many respects they resemble a microcosm of what some anarchists believe an ideal society can and should look like.

One of the best things about public libraries is that they are free to use. Yes, taxes are collected to operate them and you will pay a nominal fine if you don’t return a book on time, but there is no immediate cost to borrowing books.

What this means is that as long as you have a library card — which is free — everyone has equal access to the library regardless of their personal wealth. Being rich can’t get you better books or more books or books before everyone else. By the same token, there is also no “means test” that requires you to be poor enough to get access to the service.

Some anarchists imagine a society where all goods would be available to all who require or desire them, in the same way that libraries make books available. Imagine if durable items that only need to be used temporarily, such as hand tools, were available for borrowing using a library model. Instead of each household needing to purchase the entire array of tools they might need over the course of a lifetime, there could be a warehouse full of shovels, saws and hammers that would be owned by no one and available to all.

Not only would this make a wide variety of tools available to people who could otherwise not afford them, but it would also severely cut down on the sheer volume of tools that would need to be produced to satisfy the needs of a society. Thus, the amount of labour used to produce tools would be reduced as well as the amount of natural resources used in their production. In turn, this will result in more free time for those who manufacture the goods in question, and less pollution and scarcity of resources.

A common criticism of the sort of system where everyone takes according to their needs is that it will inevitably be abused by greedy or irresponsible individuals and therefore be unsustainable. The success of libraries tells a different story. Some people steal library books, others lose them or damage them. However, these occurrences are rare. Rare enough that abuses of libraries do nothing to prevent them from being enjoyed by everyone else. The fines collected by libraries for breaking rules are minimal and are generally enforced only when people voluntarily submit to them — you can still borrow books if you have outstanding fines. The fact that abuses are nonetheless infrequent speaks to the responsibility that people are capable of demonstrating when they know that they are relying on others and are being relied upon to act conscientiously for the benefit of all.

One obvious way that libraries are not representative of anarchism is the means by which they are governed: from the top down, by government bureaucrats. The people who use libraries have the ability to make purchase suggestions and make complaints about how the library operates, but they have no direct influence on how they function on a day-to-day basis. Library employees also have little or no say in important decisions made about the library. Instead, those decisions are left in the hands of career managers, some of whom have never stocked a shelf in their life.

It is not unreasonable to surmise that libraries might better meet the needs of those who use them if those users could congregate, discuss and vote on how they want their library to be run. By the same token, those who are employed in libraries should have the ability to determine how they want to conduct their work. This direct participation decision-making could include determining how long is a reasonable amount of time for a book to be borrowed, what types of books would be available, how the shelves are arranged, and how the building can be used as a community space for meetings, presentations and other events. Perhaps they would come up with novel ideas such as having the number of pages in a book determine how long it can be borrowed for. Perhaps very few changes would be necessary and the system would stay mostly as is. Either way, by having true direct democracy as part of their everyday lives, people will feel empowered and connected to their fellow citizens and have a greater stake in the wellbeing of society as a whole.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of the deeply nuanced and complex anarchist vision, but I hope this brief introduction has given you a sense that anarchism is not inherently violent or disorganized or any other pejorative term you’ve heard associated with it. If you want to gain a broader understanding of anarchism, check out the book Anarchism and Its Aspirations by Cindy Milstein. Unfortunately, you won’t find it at your local library, but it is available at Mondragon — Winnipeg’s very own anarchist workers’ co-op bookstore, restaurant and grocery store.

Rob McGregor thinks that you should expand your conception of how egalitarian, peaceful and beautiful the world could be.