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American Voices: David Kipen

This week’s American Voices essay is from David Kipen, former director of literature of the National Endowment for the Arts.

When I left my job as director of literature of the National Endowment for the Arts early last year, I opened this nonprofit lending library and used bookshop in a working-class Los Angeles neighborhood called Boyle Heights. The shared Jewish and Mexican heritage of the neighborhood gives the shop its name: Libros Schmibros. I opened up last year on the day that neighborhood public libraries all over town were giving up their Monday hours because of budget cuts. For now at least, this story has a happy ending because Libros Schmibros has become a genuine, if precarious, success, and the smart electorate of Los Angeles has voted to add back those lost library hours.

But what if the library hadn’t reopened on Mondays? What if the anti-tax zealots had capitalized on the opening of Libros Schmibros to make the case that library funding isn’t necessary? What if, they argue, that quixotic volunteers like me are always going to step forward to do what government supposedly can’t afford to do anymore? It’s a fair question, since I don’t want to be Exhibit A in anybody’s push to defund public services. I don’t want to be anybody’s point of light. I only opened Libros Schmibros because I thought it was criminally shortsighted for my city to be laying off librarians. I also suspected that opening a lending library would be a gas and a half – if admittedly nobody’s ticket to riches.

But there’s always been a word for people like me who will do what other people have historically been way better paid to do, and it’s not volunteer either — it’s scab. Sure nobody’s trying to break the librarians union for money here the way a scab or a strike breaker would. But today any kid can walk into my shop and borrow a book without consulting the much better-qualified librarians down the block. I hope that doesn’t make me a scab, but I wonder.

Up to a point, of course, this is all pathetic liberal handwringing. Tax-cutters are the last people to worry much about the public servants they throw directly into poverty with their layoffs. But these questions have consequences well beyond public libraries. Who needs cops when vigilantes are so much cheaper? And who exactly do you want playing librarian in Boyle Heights? An underemployed book critic and federal arts administrator like me? Or that crackerjack youth librarian who can get kids to cough up the name of the only book they’ve ever finished, and then immediately recommend five more like it?

Pretty obviously, we get what we pay for. Volunteers like me are way better than nothing, but nowhere near as good as the real thing. We’re not scabs, we’re amateurs, doing what we do because we love it, and because there’s a need. Not for a minute would I ever want to preempt the work of real librarians, like all the great ones who inspired me to create Libros Schmibros in the first place. Besides, lots of volunteers like me do get paid, in a way. We get paid to reinvent ourselves by a program just as valuable, and just as vulnerable lately, as library funding. You see, my biggest source of income since I started Libros Schmibros has been my unemployment insurance. And, barring any longshot extensions, it’s about to run out.