The value of our public libraries

May 9, 2008

Leela Yellesetty documents the extent to which publicly funded libraries are under siege.

WHAT'S A library worth? It's a question often asked these days, when anything of value must come with a dollar figure. Some recent studies provide an interesting answer.

Researchers at Indiana University recently conducted an economic-impact analysis of the state's public libraries and reported a return of $2.38 to the community for each dollar of investment. A similar study in San Francisco found a $3.34 return for every dollar.

Over the past several years, many communities have attempted to measure public libraries' provision of collections, Internet access, services to job-seekers and businesses, and other means by which libraries generate demonstrable economic results. Of course, these numbers don't capture the whole picture. It is difficult to assign monetary value to the countless invaluable social goods that libraries provide, too numerous to list here.

We know that the vast majority of Americans use their public libraries. According to Public Agenda's survey of public perceptions of libraries, "At a time of broad concern about wasteful public spending...71 percent say that libraries spend public money well. Fifty-two percent say that if their local library needed additional funding, they would favor tax increases to generate necessary resources--significantly more than the numbers who favor charging users (32 percent) or reducing services (20 percent) as options for solving a financial shortfall."

So when surveying the field as a library student, it can feel like entering the twilight zone. This is the sense I get from a recent survey by the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) which shows that school libraries' budgets have declined at the same time as their value and effectiveness in promoting student achievement has been increasingly well-documented.

Despite their obvious value, publicly funded libraries have been under siege. The list of cuts reported on the ALA Web site goes on and on: reduced service hours and services, layoffs, budget cuts and even outsourcing.

AS THE economy worsens, these trends are likely to accelerate. Many believe that privatization offers the only remedy to public services in dire financial straits. Even libraries that are not outsourced are increasingly pressured to act more like a business. "Accountability" has become the new buzzword for all public services alleged to be sapping the public dime.

Increasingly, outside consultants, usually from the private sector, are brought in to eliminate waste in public services. A recent article in Public Libraries promotes the "Library Balanced Score Card"--a tool adapted from business planning to use in library benchmarking.

I am certainly not against borrowing good ideas from the private sector. If someone's doing what you're doing only better, you would be a fool to ignore it. But the problem comes when what a public library is trying to do--provide a free public service--clashes with what a business is trying to do--make a profit. This quote from the above article is telling:

The bottom line for any for-profit company is to choose a set of strategies that deliver long-term shareholder value by increasing the growth of revenues (and profits) as well as increasing its overall productivity--that is, improving its asset utilization...A public library can use the financial perspective to assess the amount of local support for the library using a variety of measures such as budget per capita, growth in budget compared to inflation, a share-of-the-pie measure and so forth.

We are to believe that for-profit companies are able to "prove" their worth (mounting evidence of corporate malfeasance notwithstanding), while libraries have not done so successfully, even if extensive evidence shows they have value. If the public really appreciated the library, this would show itself in increased revenue. If they can't earn their "share-of-the pie," then perhaps someone else could do it better.

Let's set the record straight: the pie has not gotten smaller. Government spending remains as large as two decades ago. The problem is where the money is going--and where it isn't.

THE FIRST obvious drain on our resources is the more than $720 million a day being spent on brutal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The long-term costs of these wars will be even more staggering, according to Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda Bilmes' new book, The Three Trillon Dollar War.

If the majority of Americans had their way, the budgets for wars and social services would be inverted. A recent poll by the Associated Press found that pulling out of Iraq ranked as the number one remedy for the current economic crisis, followed by increased funding for domestic programs.

In his book Free Lunch, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston documents another place our tax dollars are ending up: in the pockets of the extremely wealthy.

In a chapter discussing the billions of dollars in stadium subsidies doled out to money-losing sports teams, Johnston notes, "The huge gifts of money that wealthy owners of sports teams wheedle out of taxpayers are a free lunch that someone must fund. Often that burden falls on poor children and the ambitious among the poor...Libraries imposed costs on taxpayers, but they also returned benefits as the nation's store of knowledge grew. That is, library spending is a prime example of a subsidy adding value."

Up against legions of slick corporate campaigners in both state and national capitals, a lobbying strategy is not enough. Nor can we rely on the beneficence of private donors. While no doubt the Gates Foundation has pumped some lifeblood into struggling public libraries, their total amount granted to libraries in the U.S.--$325 million according to their Web site--is dwarfed by Microsoft's recent request for $1 billion in tax breaks for server farms in Eastern Washington. That is, $1 billion of taxpayer dollars that could be going to libraries and other essential public services.

We should instead take a cue from mothers in Eastern Washington, who have launched a grassroots campaign in defense of school libraries. Started by three mothers in Spokane who witnessed their school libraries being slashed from the budget, they have since gathered thousands of signatures on an on-line petition and mobilized more than 100 people on the Capitol steps in Olympia in support of a school library funding bill. The bill recently passed unanimously in the state senate thanks to their efforts.

The outpouring of support voiced on the petition speaks to the tremendous impact of libraries on so many people's lives. As one petition-signer wrote,

It's not an overstatement to say that school libraries saved my life. I was a welfare kid with abusive parents in a rich school district. Home was a hell, and my poor performance and messy appearance made the classroom hell too. Today, I am earning a PhD in English instead of rotting in prison or being dead, and it was access to books, the alternative learning space of the library, and my schools' librarians who helped me survive those awful years.

The other side may have the money, but we have power in numbers--not to mention justice--on ours.

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