Kill the Library! Kill it! Kill it!

A link to this op-ed in the Gainesville Sun has been making the rounds of the library grapevine, mostly on PUBLIB but also on TSLIBRARIANS, which is where I read it.  It’s an anti-library rant, and not a very coherent one at that. Since it’s been a couple of years since I last gave an opinion piece like this one a good fisking, I figured I needed the practice.  My response is beneath the cut.

A few things about what I wrote–unlike the previous article I responded to, this writer is trying to make his point economic in nature. I say, fine, great. I love arguing about money (I do it all the time, if not with Mrs. Rogue Scholar, then with the little Rogue Scholars.  Sometimes I even win.) But I went through the trouble to download and read the budget documents for Alachua County, Florida before I started.  I suspect my opponent did not.  Tough break.

On to dispel the idiocy!

Mar 3, 2008

George Elmore: Pull the plug on the library

By GEORGE ELMORE

Special to The Sun

Bad news, folks. The library is Alachua County’s version of Terri
Schiavo, and life support is costing us nearly $20 million each year.
It would be an act of mercy to harvest the organs and move on.

Oh, I could say so much about this line, but I’ll limit myself to calling it a poor metaphor.

According
to the Alachua District library’s own Web site, the library had 1.2
million visits last year. I am guessing this means that the turnstiles
clicked over 1.2 million times, no telling what for. But let’s
stipulate that all those entrances were to actually use the library
services and not just to get a drink of water, use the bathroom or
escape the elements.

The budget for the coming year is $19 million. That means that each visit costs over $15.

His arithmetic is fine as far as it goes, but this is the most heinous string of logic I have encountered in literally years, except for what follows it.  But even if it were true (it’s not, the costs are there no matter how many people walk in to the place and statistical shorthand doesn’t change that), the larger point is this: the library’s website also mentions that it serves an area with a population of over 190,600 individuals between 10 branches and a few bookmobiles.  If the branches logged 1.2 million visits in the course of the year that means that each person in the county visited a library 6.29 times.  That’s significant repeat business, hardly an unused asset.  If we go with the 80/20 rule–which says that 80% of your repeat business comes from 20% of your total customer base–then each of 38,120 people  logged something like 25 visits during the year. That kind of loyalty is something that businesses pay through the nose for, at least if they expect to stay in business. In that sense, $15 per visit is not a big deal.  Compare it to the $80 (or more) per hour professional researchers charge for their services. Compare it to the cost of a typical hard-bound novel ($24.95 and up) or the fact that two new paperbacks will cost $15.90. Hell, in a world where a cup of coffee costs $6, $15 for access to several tens of thousands of free books and time to read them is a bargain.

As an aside, the entire county budget for 2007-2008 is $323 million. $19.6 million of that funds the public library system. Do the math–6% of the total.  Excessive expenditure?  You tell me.

Historically
the public library has been a valued research institution, and has
served that purpose admirably. But no more. With the advent of the
Internet and Google, virtually no serious research is carried on in the
library stacks.

Librarians hear this argument a lot. I don’t think it’s at all accurate but it’s a popular sentiment.  I addressed this point previously, but a brief recap for you just tuning in may be in order.

"The Internet" was built by your tax dollars for the use of the U.S. military. It was designed to facilitate electronic communications (a.k.a, "e-mail") between cities, military bases and other institutions in the event that a nuclear war severed normal communication channels.  When most people speak about "The Internet" what they really mean is "those fancy commercial applications that are found on the World Wide Web." The web is not the same as the Internet but it’s a big part of the Internet as it’s often used (both in practice and in description). The electronic services that are used via the web are commercial applications.

Additionally, the web didn’t even really exist until the early 1980s  and it took more than a decade for business folks to figure out that it was possible–even profitable–to make money with it.  No, I don’t mean the dot-coms, I mean the publishing powerhouses like Thomson Gale, EBSCO, Lexis/Nexis, etc.

In other words, the electronic resources that we make use of–including in libraries–are very recent developments and very much works in progress. The technology alone keeps changing much more rapidly than anyone can truly understand or even keep track of. They are not capable of replacing knowledgeable human beings, and very likely never will be. Tell a librarian you need a hand with some research and see what she says.  Type "I need help with a report" into a Google search field and see what it says. There is a difference.

If you need more convincing, read this.

Recreational reading? If not done online, then
one can go to any of the big box bookstores and read to one’s heart
content and even have coffee.

I think I can safely say that I’ve never met anyone capable of reading more than a dozen or so pages on-line. The eye strain is intense and over long periods of time it ruins your eyesight, which is why most of us who spend our lives before  computer monitors wear glasses.  Or fight like hell to get LCD monitors for our PCs which are much less destructive to the eye.  If I want to read a 20 page article that I downloaded as a PDF, I print it out first.

By the way,  a major source of new material for many libraries is donated books. Some donations are more worthwhile than others according to the nature of the collection in question, but that’s how old books find new audiences. Big box book stores carry a tiny fraction of material compared to the vastness of the public library and more importantly–they dispose of any book that doesn’t sell after a few month’s time. (I worked in a bookstore way back when.) So, you have a choice–you can pay $7.95 for that new techno-thriller  at Barnes & Nobel (maybe saving a dollar at Amazon.com) or you can wait another few weeks and go to your public library, where someone will probably have donated it. Then you can borrow it and read it for free.

Books to take home? They are almost
free at Hospice, Goodwill, Pet Rescue and other charitable outlets. At
garage sales on any Saturday, $5 will buy anybody a year’s worth of
recreational, if not educational, reading. I hardly need mention that
twice a year the Friends of the Library sells thousands of books at 10
cents each.

Mr. Elmore has an extreme sense of bargain-hunting. (When was the last time you went to a hospice or animal shelter to buy old books?) I don’t doubt that cheap used books are a cinch to find for anyone with the slightest interest in chasing them down, but I’ll point out here that library books are not cheap–they are free. And the librarians won’t chase you off the premises for not buying something. Another aside: where does he thinks Friends of the Library gets their books from? The library !

No Internet access? This may be a problem for a tiny
minority, but just a small portion of the library budget for a single
year would purchase Internet-ready laptops for any and all who would
qualify. If a person can make it to the library for access, I am sure
he or she can make it to Starbucks or Books-A-Million for the link-up.

The consistently crappy Internet access in the United States is a crime against knowledge. Every other industrialized country on the planet has ubiquitous broadband access everywhere people go. That we do not is more a testament to the painfully bad state of our communication infrastructure than anything else. That said, I have nothing against Starbucks or Internet cafes offering service, but the point remains. Prepare to pay an hourly fee or a few tall lattes for the privilege. At the public library, the service is free of charge.

I think presenting some genuine facts (as opposed to his guesswork and certainty) would have helped Elmore’s argument here. A lot.

And
it gets even better. If my property tax bill is any indication,
elimination of the library would result in an immediate 5.1 percent tax
cut! I mean how hard can it be to sell a 5.1 percent tax cut to each
and every property owner in Alachua County? I don’t have the exact
number in front of me, but I am guessing that it’s over 70,000 people
who would experience direct tax relief.

The county commissioners
are warning that the sky is falling because of a potential $3 million
mandated tax cut. Here is a chance to cut six times that amount with no
reduction in essential services.

Finally, a moment of honesty from the author. This isn’t about better options than the library becoming available, this is about a guy who never uses the library and doesn’t see why his hard earned cash should go to funding anything he doesn’t personally use. Why fund libraries? Hell, why fund anything? But I digress.

A note from one writer to another, George. Never, ever, ever admit you don’t know what you’re talking about when you write to persuade. Be honest, you couldn’t read that 490-page document on-line and so you made up a number to make it seem like you had a clue. You don’t. You only care about your personal tax avoidance. Admit it, and the truth will set you free.

Additionally, closing the
library will free up over 24,000 volunteer hours. And volunteers, being
what they are, will no doubt find time to help at other needy
organizations.

On this point, need I suggest that people who volunteer at the library actually prefer volunteering at the library  to somewhere else? I admit there’s a chance they’ll go somewhere else–some of them will surely go elsewhere–but most of those hours will probably just evaporate into nothing and that’s a lot of lost energy and skill.

And finally, one may ask what are we to do with
the existing library buildings? After all we still owe about $10
million on them. Here again, things can only get better.

Certainly
the buildings are worth considerably more than $10 million, so why
don’t we sell them, pay off the bonds (thus enhancing our bond rating),
put that property back on the tax rolls and use the difference to buy
those laptops I spoke of four paragraphs ago? If there ever was a
win-win-win option, this is it!

Not exactly a winning situation for the folks who genuinely enjoy visiting the public library (or the folks they employ), but I guess you can’t have everything. I am curious how Elmore figured out that the buildings that comprise the library are worth "considerably more than $10 million". Real estate license?  Municipal appraisal? Guesswork and wishful thinking? I’m going to go with the third option since we’ve already seen that when in doubt, Mr. Elmore makes things up. (How much money is in a "considerable", anyway? Anyone?)

While we’re on the topic of saving money, here’s an idea.  Why not keep the libraries and get rid of the police instead? I mean, Florida has pretty liberal gun carry and ownership laws.  Combined with the recently enacted "Stand-Your Ground" law down there,  people are empowered to protect and defend themselves, right? Not only would the county save the money normally spent on the police force and their equipment, pensions and so on, but it’d be able to save the $17 million it spends just collecting taxes for the law enforcement portion of the county budget.

(I am serious. And it is as good an idea as anything Mr. Elmore has presented.)

Of course, I am not talking about
the libraries in the schools or university. They would still be
available, and, as you know, the massive university libraries are
available to any Florida resident.

I actually called the reference desk at Library West at the University of Florida (at Gainesville) to check this.  Anyone is free to use the facilities (you need not be a student) but to actually take books out or obtain access to the electronic materials you need to have a photo I.D. like a driver’s license. Which is not a bad policy at all. That said, the University of Florida is a private institution and can change its policy at any time.

There will be opposition to
this proposal. Included are the director and the governors who are on
board with the extended mission of the library to be a haven for the
homeless as well as a drop-off point for toddlers. To those who would
object, I would simply ask the following question: Would you be willing
to stand at the turnstile and pay $15 out of your own pocket for each
visitor?

I read the library’s mission statement.  All I can say is that if George Elmore knows about people abandoning their children at the library or anywhere else, he is ethically and morally compelled to contact the police and Child Protective Services immediately.  On the subject of the homeless all I can say is "Be good to the people you meet on the way up, because you’re going to meet them all again on your way down." On the subject of that $15 use fee (which he clearly also made up) I will say, George,  I hope you don’t run a business because you can’t read a balance sheet for  beans.

So, there you have it. Here is a golden opportunity to
prove that a government program can actually be cut when it has been
superseded by outside events. The beauty of this task is that the goal
is easily identifiable, quantifiable and logically coherent. With this
achievement, we would have the credibility and clout to take on more
pressing projects.

Elmore’s goal is to save a few bucks on his property taxes without sounding like a greedy bastard. (In this, he fails miserably.)  His mathematically challenged analysis of municipal finances is not much better. (Does anyone with even a basic knowledge of accounting divide an annual budget by the number of visitors per year to arrive at a value for Cost of Doing Business? No!) His command of–oh, screw it, let’s just end this here.

Andrew Carnegie–no prince of a human being by any means but one hell of a capitalist–figured out that wealth was by definition a shared substance, and that it was the duty of the wealthy to return their fortunes to the world so that others might benefit from their prosperity.  It was just plain The Right Thing to Do.  So he used his  fortune to fund thousands of public libraries all over the English-speaking world, more than 1,600 of them in the U.S.A. He then insisted that public libraries be local institutions for use by the people who lived close to them. He did this because he believed that America was a place built upon merit, and that anyone with the drive and ambition should be able to get themselves the best education possible, and prosper in turn.  That is where the idea behind our public libraries came from.  They are not obsolete, tax sinks or homeless shelters. They are a great man’s legacy to our country’s future. That is, if it even has a future at this point–if there is any attitude more sure of killing American drive and ambition, Elmore’s is it.

And for the record, yes, I would happily spend $15 per visitor to keep them open. (I live in NYC so I pay a lot more than that.) As I said, for the services being provided, $15 is a bargain.

About Jon Frater

A gaming industry stalwart dating back to the 1980s, Jonathan Frater is the co-author of roleplaying game books Robotech: Return of the Masters, and Robotech Adventures: Lancer’s Rockers, both for Palladium Books. Jonathan also wrote a column on writing and game design called The Tome in Gateways magazine. He’s currently a librarian at Metropolitan College of New York. Article 9, the first in his ambitious Blockade Trilogy, is Jonathan’s first full-length novel.

0 Responses to Kill the Library! Kill it! Kill it!

  1. I don’t always use the public library but I do need it, I’m glad it’s there. We should send $15 to Mr. Elmore so he can use the library.

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