Photograph by Steven Higgs

MCPL labor organizer Phil Eskew says the "business-model" approach to library management is incongruent with the mission of a public library, which to serve the public good.

The following is the full contents of an e-mail from Monroe County Public Library union organizer Phil Eskew.

"What I'm most excited about is that we will now have a true democracy at the library. Prior to the union election, we were experiencing a situation wherein all decisions relevant to employees' wages, benefits, and working conditions were being made by the board and the director. We are now on a path that will put a contract in place that ensures guaranteed staff participation in these discussions via union representation.

"This provides something akin to a balance of powers as well as actual representation on the part of staff. The union provides both a balance to the decision-making powers of the administration and the board, and it represents the voice of the staff in dialogue with admin and the board.

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"I think it's important to consider the vital role libraries play in a democratic society. I think the discussion of unions as a democratic force feeds into that, as the library will soon have something at the micro level that more properly mirrors the larger democratic structure of county government -- and the U.S. government.

"It's important to remember that the public library is not a business, but rather that it's a public institution providing a vital public good. We are more than a place to check out popular print and AV titles. We're a community meeting space and a hub for civic discussions of vital interest to the citizens of Monroe County.

"Unfortunately, many public libraries are currently moving toward the adoption of a 'business model,' but I think it's important to remember that some institutions, like the public library, do not fit neatly into the business model. A library serves the public good, and there are significant differences in the fundamental missions of libraries and businesses.

"The public library is a special place. Historically, the founders of early public libraries saw the institution as a way to educate citizens so that they could more effectively participate in a democratic society. The shift toward a 'give-'em-what they-want' business model is a real threat.

"If we're going to get the citizens of Monroe County behind the library, we've got to convince them of the vital civic role it plays in our community. When we pander to those who find it easier to simply borrow from the business world instead of embrace and fight for what makes public libraries special and unique, then we risk a path that may very well lead to the belief that public libraries are disposable.

"This is not to say that we shouldn't have popular materials in the library, but we cannot simply look at ourselves as a 'popular materials library.'

"There is a lot we can do maintain a balance, to maintain fiscal responsibility, and there's a lot we can do to reclaim our vital role as one of the fundamental pillars of democratic society in the U.S. But adoption of the 'give-'em-what they want' business model is not part of that solution.

"I believe that the union can assist the board and administration in being vocal advocate for the library and the unique and vital role it plays in this community."