Monday, October 17, 2011

Public Libraries Are Free; So, Does That Mean They Don't Cost Anybody Anything?

Lots of folks took the time to read the last post here about libraries and books.  And, as I suspected, real books still matter to lots of folks.  Nobody likes to see books go to “book heaven”, even if they’re the umpteenth copy of really bad teen paranormal romance novels.

And with regard to the destruction of actual manuscript public records  -   that's a special legal issue all unto itself.

There was, of course, an ulterior motive behind the post in the first place.  It wasn’t just about pulping books.  It was to subtly suggest that “free” public libraries aren’t really “free” at all.  Choices have to be made.  Choices cost money.  The physical space that libraries need is not “free.”   Publishers do not provide books for “free.”  And – surprise – the companies that provide libraries with online databases don’t do this for “free.”

Somebody pays for it all in the end.  You pay. I pay.  Pretty much everybody pays something.  And while public libraries are “free” to use, that doesn’t mean that they’re, well, “FREE.” 

Like lunch, ferinstence.

Look, everybody loves libraries.  Just ask ‘em.  But when you ask them to actually PAY for libraries, their tune starts to change a bit.  In fact, the melody gets to sound a bit off-key.

Back in 2008, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation dropped a bunch of money on OCLC (OCLC – the library cataloging gurus   - the people who bring you WorldCat and one of the leaders in the field of library research) to look at the “support” status of libraries as the 21st century was getting underway.

When all was surveyed, said and done, here’s what they found:

  • Public library use is increasing.
  • Public library support from government at all levels (federal, state, local) has either flat-lined or declined and ballot initiatives for additional funding haven’t been doing very well.
  • Ballot initiatives for new space have been doing especially poorly.
  • Largely funded by local tax dollars, libraries compete with local police, fire, public works and other “key services” departments for public funding. Guess who wins?
  • Being “supportive” of libraries in the abstract and actually being willing to fork over actual cash to actually support them financially in the “real” world aren’t necessarily the same thing.

Lots of these “on the surface” public library “findings” were predictable.  

However, it gets really interesting when you drill down in the report and see some of the more specific findings.  For example, more than half of the people who described themselves as “financially strapped” felt that their local public library already had enough government funding and said that they would be unlikely to vote for increased support. Less than 30% of the respondents overall felt this way.  

40% of these “financially strapped” folks thought that tax increases for libraries would be “a waste of the public’s money”, compared to 16% of overall respondents.

Remember – this report came out way back in 2008, before “financially strapped” took on its current meaning and encompassed even more of the population.

Another interesting finding was that the segment of the population identified as “Detached” – that is, the “higher income than average” (29% earn $100,000+), well-educated, non-library users are no friends of libraries when it comes to public funding.  While more than 40% would be willing to spend more for fire, police, schools and public health, only 20% would support increased library funding. 

Libraries were close to the bottom, beating out the last-place “park services” only by 3%.

The really interesting finding was the report of the views of what OCLC called the “Web Wins” segment of the population.  These are the folks who felt that the Internet beat the public library five ways to Sunday.  They tend to be well-educated, technologically savvy, gainfully employed and economically successful.

Turns out that the public library is the “least likely” of all public services that they’d support.  Police, yeah, sure.  Fire, yup.  Even “parks”, that’s a “go.”  But libraries – not so much.

After all, they rarely use the public library. They're convinced that they can do it all online at home. Plus, they think that librarians do not add value to the research process.  Here’s the kicker:  in answer to the question “It’s easier to do research on the Internet using search engines like Google and Yahoo than in the local public library”, 69% of the “Web Wins” respondents agreed, while only 37% of the total respondents agreed.  Of course,  most had high-speed internet access at home.

45% of the “Web Wins” group think that all the great TV programming and all the great kids’ activities make public libraries much less important to kids than they once were.

So, if you’re one of these folks and you think it’s all on the ‘net and that librarians don’t add value to the research process – please – do me a big favor.  Don’t vote.  Don’t teach my grandkids.  Don’t do anything that puts you in charge of any kind of “public policy”, especially when it comes to libraries.
Still, the most interesting finding was simply this: support for libraries was strongest among those people who felt that libraries were “transformational”, not just “informational”.  

Libraries and librarians make a difference.  Plus, it’s more than just about storing printed information in book form.  It’s about learning.  More people are using libraries.  More people are seeing their value.

Libraries are all about transforming lives.  

Transformation doesn’t come cheap.