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In the catalog of History the institution of public library is listed in the category of phenomena of which we humans are most proud. Along with free public education, public healthcare, the scientific method, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Wikipedia, free software… It’s one of those almost invisible infrastructures that we start to notice only once they go extinct. A place where all people can get access to all knowledge that can be collected seemed for a long time a dream beyond reach – until the egalitarian impetus of social revolutions, the Enlightment idea of universality of knowledge, and the expcetional suspension of the comercial barriers of copyright made it possible.
The Internet has, as in many other situations, completely changed our expectations and imagination about what is possible. The dream of a catalogue of the world – a universal access to all available knowledge for every member of society – became realizable. A question merely of the meeting of curves on a graph: the point at which the line of global distribution of personal computers meets that of the critical mass of people with access to the Internet. Today nobody lacks the imagination necessary to see public libraries as part of a global infrastructure of universal access to knowledge for literally every member of society. However, the emergence and development of the Internet is taking place precisely at the point at which an institutional crisis — one with traumatic and inconceivable consequences — has also begun.
The reactionary forces of the »old regime« are staging a »Thermidor« to suppress the public libraries from pursuing their mission. Today public libraries cannot acquire, cannot even buy digital books from the world’s largest publishers. The small amount of e-books that they were able to acquire they must destroy after only twenty-six lendings. Libraries and the principle of universal access to all existing knowledge that they embody are losing, in every possible way, the battle with a market dominated by new players such as Amazon.com, Google, and Apple.
In 2012, Canada’s Conservative Party–led government cut financial support for Libraries and Archives Canada (LAC) by Can$9.6 million, which resulted in the loss of 400 archivist and librarian jobs, the shutting down of some of LAC’s Internet pages, and the cancellation of the further purchase of new books. In only three years, from 2010 to 2012, some 10 percent of public libraries were closed in Great Britain. The phenomena of which we people are most proud are being undercut and can easily go extinct.