Snowball and the Adbusters by Jami Dwyer Used under a CC-BY-SA-2.0 license

a hill probably not worth dying on

Yesterday, one of my colleagues who has a job in a regional library system tweeted that she was thinking about corporate sponsorship of public libraries. She didn’t mention any details, but it connected with issues I’ve been thinking about recently.

Now first, I am a person who was brought up on Adbusters and basically think advertising is bullshit immoral manipulation. In high school I was filled with righteous indignation about a Coke-sponsored scoreboard we received. Props to my high-school’s administration for letting me get angry and try to organize a revolt against this scoreboard so I could learn firsthand that nobody cared but me.

I need to confess that so you don’t read what follows and try to detect me being unfair to the needs that advertising can serve. Do not waste the effort. You will absolutely see me being unfair to the practical reality of advertising. Things cost money and advertising can help bring that money in. I hate that shit, but am capable of trying to set aside personal feelings in the name of professionalism. I may fail in that attempt. So be it.

Caveats aside, let’s take a hypothetical situation. Let’s say a local IT company approached a library I worked for and said “Hey, we’ve got some mousepads with our logo on them. We see your public internet computers don’t have mousepads. Can we give you these to use there?”

Anti-advertising though I may be, I think there’s space for legitimate debate in a situation like that. (Remember that if it was up to me personally I’d be saying “Fuck no! Kill your mousepads with fire!” but in this situation I’m thinking professionally not personally.) There might be use for mousepads at our public computers. We might not have them simply because we wanted to save money at the IT level (since we spent all our mousepad money on ergonomic mousepads to protect our staff’s wrists). It’s also possible we might not have mousepads because they’d be a hassle to keep hygenic or something. But maybe library members have complained about the crappy mice at the internet computers and having mousepads would make their experience better.

So you’d look at the situation and do some assessment and weigh the benefits vs the costs. Benefits-wise remember that all we’re getting out of this is the mousepads themselves. No extra money is changing hands. Among the costs is appearing to endorse one specific company. If you’re in a smallish community and there’s one local IT place and a Staples or whatever maybe that’s something you’d do for the company to help them out. It’s also possible the mousepads would cause other problems due to their materials or something.

In my mind accepting those mousepads is something community-spirited and charitable that the library is doing to help the company. The company is not really helping the library by offering these mousepads. If we needed mousepads we could find the budget for them; if we didn’t need them we could keep on doing without. The benefit for the library is miniscule. The company is the one getting the benefit of advertising in a trusted public institution.

I don’t like it, but I can understand doing this. I’d still argue against this kind of thing because I don’t see how these logoed-up mousepads help the library fulfill its mandate of facilitating knowledge creation in the community. Maybe if instead of an IT company it was a local literacy organization that’d make this a more attractive way of expressing support. Framed as a local community building initiative, I could probably deal with these mousepads.

Now what about if those mousepads don’t have the logo of a local computer shop but an ad for McDonald’s? And no one has ever ever complained about the lack of mousepads at the public computers?

At that point I get angry at anyone even thinking about putting those mousepads in my hypothetical library.

There is no fucking way that my hypothetical library should be lending its name to McFuckingDonald’s. I may be too strident in this kind of thing and this is why I will never be in management/administration of any organization but I would be saying Fuck Off to McDonald’s even if the corporation was buying the library books/databases/Lego/staffing budget and wanting to put their logo anywhere near us.

This is because I think the brand of “Public Library” has value. Immense value. It isn’t something to be given away or peddled for worthless bullshit trinkets like mousepads or keychain tags or whatever. If my hypothetical library is going to partner with a corporation there is going to be an exchange of value that actually supports my library’s mission.

It’s possible to do that. Lego has a Read Build Play program that’s partnered up with Association for Library Service to Children to use Duplo in storytimes. That is direct support of literacy and makes sense in the context of a library. If Canadian Tire was donating tools to a library makerspace, I’d be okay with their logo on a “Tools provided by:” sort of sign. If a local Nissan dealership was giving my library an amazing deal on a van to make a service-mobile (note that I am speaking hypothetically here; I do not work for FVRL), fine, I’ll have a Nissan logo on the stuff we give out about our van. If we’re getting real value out of it I’ll accept a certain level of sponsorship.

But for penny-ante tchotchkes? Fuck you.

(Again, I’ll admit I’m never putting McDonalds’ name/logo anywhere near any library I have any power in. It’d be the same thing if Exxon-Mobil wanted to buy a whole new building for my library and put their name on it. Not gonna happen. This may be cutting off my hypothetical library’s nose to spite its face but I just could not handle such a thing.)

Now, it’s possible the observant reader might think I had some kind of personal/professional stake in this at the moment. I cannot possibly comment on such speculation. In conversation today, my scattered internet-based colleagues agree that such situations of selling out a library’s integrity and mission for bits of plastic and fabric are shameful but probably not an issue to hypothetically sacrifice continuing employment for.

The featured image on the main page is Snowball and the Adbusters by Jami Dwyer used under a CC-BY-SA-2.0 license

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