Comments on: In it for the Money: Your Public Library it's like being there Tue, 16 Sep 2014 04:56:38 +0000 hourly 1 By: Vivienne Armentrout Vivienne Armentrout Sun, 30 Mar 2014 15:29:23 +0000 Good point, Steve. I guess it is a good thing for society that we don’t all gauge our contributions by the personal utility (or monetary) return we derive from them.

Actually, this philosophical point underlies the push for user fees, which appear to be democratic but are the reverse. If we only pay for what we personally benefit from, those who are unable to pay fall off the wagon, and also the community resource can fade away if it is not “profitable”. This goes against my own communitarian ideal.

Michigan’s tax structure has pushed many municipalities and authorities into making as many activities fee-based as possible. This is because the constitutional prohibition on sales taxes, special ticket taxes, etc. (Headlee amendment) make it impossible to have operating funds without either a taxpayer-voted property millage or a fee that can be demonstrated to be related to the service directly provided.

I’m grateful that our library has not succumbed to this trend.

By: Steve Bean Steve Bean Sun, 30 Mar 2014 13:26:39 +0000 “THE INDIVIDUAL CITIZEN CAN MAXIMIZE PROFIT BY CHANGING BEHAVIOR.”

I think you mean “utility”, not “profit”, Dave, but it’s probably a common conflation in our money-focused culture.

By: David Erik Nelson David Erik Nelson Sun, 30 Mar 2014 01:37:15 +0000 Replying to Comment #1


Thanks for raising these questions! Eli Neiburger actually addressed most of these when we chatted, but that conversation was 1.5 hours long, so I had to be pretty selective in what I ended up transcribing. At any rate, here’s the understanding I walked away with:

1) PRIVATE USE. It’s sort of buried in the column, but the primary difference is that the library is dedicated to purchasing shared communal access to things for private use. If I take a STOP sign or city-owned truck home, that’s theft–even though there’s a (plausibly valid, nonetheless tortuous) argument to be made that “I bought it.” Yeah, I bought it–we all bought it–but we did so explicitly and exclusively for a very specific public use. WIth the library, we’re communally buying things to be used privately.

2) NO ADDITIONAL FEES. With entities like Parks & Rec, a good deal of their services *do* require an additional fee (e.g., using the public pools or Rec Center, taking classes, borrowing sports equipment, etc.) You can’t *just* pay for (and use) the public parks without paying for Wash Rec and Buhr Pool and all the other stuff that you still have to pay to actually use. (Trash collection is similar, in that there is a cap on how much you can use that service, and there are additional fees applied when you need to, for example, dump a sofa or motor oil. The library is essentially unlimited, save by issues of scarcity itself, and thus scarcity management.)

3) THE INDIVIDUAL CITIZEN CAN MAXIMIZE PROFIT BY CHANGING BEHAVIOR. From a perfectly selfish perspective, one of the nicest things about the library is that, as an individual citizen, I can control how much return I get on my investment. $155 (or whatever) is steep for one book a year, but is actually OK for one book a month–and a steal if I go for the pile of oscilloscopes. I can sorta-kinda do the same thing with Parks & Rec–I mean, I can’t use the bulk of their services without ponying up, but I *could* (confession: *do*–I live by County Farm Park) spend a ton of time in the parks in order to “maximize the return on my parks investment.” It’s not as a great a deal, because a lot of what Parks & Rec does is locked behind a pay-wall (e.g., pools, canoes, basketball courts, ice rinks, etc.), but it’s similar. This becomes a much grimmer calculus when we’re talking about police and fire–I don’t begrudge those ladies and gents a penny, and yet I’m loathe to increase my ROI by having *more* need of their services. In other words, I’m sorta stuck with them.

I want to take a sec to point out that none of 1 through 3 are complaints; different services have to work differently. But the “non-responsiveness” that’s built into those other services is, I’d hypothesis, part of the reason that we so often resent them. On the other hand, the hippie-commie library is *incredibly* popular among Americans (link)–more so than any other part of government. And, I think that has a lot to do with the fact that libraries are, on balance, highly responsive and because we feel that we can make more of our investment by using them more. We have a very strong, unarticulated sense of community ownership of those resources, which is lacking when it comes to police, fire, trash pickup, roads, and all the rest.

4) AMAZON AND ITUNES, STORY CORPS AND MORE: Amazon and iTunes are *excellent* at distributing information–as are Project Gutenberg, and, and NetFlix, and YouTube, and Blockbuster (oops!), and Borders (oops!)–which I guess brings me to my point, which is that commercial endeavors and ad hoc communal endeavors are very *fragile.* I worked in customer service at Borders’ corporate offices at the tail end of their hay day, and I can tell you for a fact that in many communities–esp. in rural America–a Borders store, with that really remarkable depth of stock and fulfillment service, was much more of an asset to some subsections of their communities (e.g., and I mention this because it came up often, queer and questioning teens) than their local and school libraries. But Borders fell, because in the end no for-profit entity is truly built for longevity; it’s built for profit. On top of that, these endeavors are also highly unreliable: material is pulled from NetFlix constantly, and new material added. Their collection is driven by factors other than user demand or need or import; in fact, it’s often driven in ways that have nothing to do with either the content, it’s creators, or the users: When NetFlix has a falling out with a big rights holder, a bunch of material will get yanked, even if the users still want access and the creators still want them to have that access. Likewise, books (even digital ones) go out-of-print–or worse, fall into a nebulous gray area where they are too valuable to release into the public domain, but to expensive to distribute (link). Still, plenty of copies of those orphan works are still circulating throughout MEL. As for something like Story Corps, it *is* great, but it largely isn’t *here.* Frankly, I’d be overjoyed if the “Story Corps” really *was* like the Peace Corps: An army of peace roaming the countryside and archiving America’s stories. But that’s a big job. It’s best distributed among our nation’s ~9,000 (link) public library systems.

5) HOMELESSNESS AND THE LIBRARY: I can’t speak to this, as I wasn’t at the city council meeting and I haven’t spoken to Ms. Parker about the library in several years. I drafted this column *before* that city council meeting happened–which probably isn’t immediately apparent, since the column came out right after the meeting and coincidentally seems to comment on issues raised at the meeting (some day I’ll write a column about the process that goes into these columns. It’s . . . often fraught).

By: Barbara Barbara Sat, 29 Mar 2014 13:41:59 +0000 I ran across this “Library use value calculator” and keyed a few numbers in. Our household definitely gets more from the library than we pay in.

By: Vivienne Armentrout Vivienne Armentrout Wed, 26 Mar 2014 13:21:29 +0000 I don’t get nearly the value for my library tax “donation” ($236.74) in direct goods, but I agree that it is a good investment. I get community value – knowing that we have the kind of community where kids can read books regardless of their family’s income. Good that it also helps in acculturation of our newer residents.

I wonder how many non-science fiction readers know that TANSTAAFL means “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”? (Robert Heinlein evidently popularized it.) A good thing to remember for all services provided by government agencies. We have to put in so that we can take out. But I hope that we never forget that it isn’t just the direct benefit to each of us as individuals that matters, but the benefit to all members of the community. It’s about the kind of community that we want to live in.

By: John Floyd John Floyd Wed, 26 Mar 2014 03:30:18 +0000 David,

I’m puzzled about a couple things:

The quote, “The library is very unique among taxing entities…”

Seems like the parks, trash collection, streets, police services, public schools, most everything else local government does (water and sewer excepted) all have zero marginal cost to the user (fancy-speak for “you don’t pay more to use it more”). Can you elaborate a bit more on why the library is unique in that way?

and the statement, “We never were about books”. If the library’s mission statement “We get people stuff”, how does the library differ from Amazon or iTunes? If you through in Public Radio’s Story Corps, it looks like the world already has everything the library does in hand.

What am I missing?

One last thing: I couldn’t quite tell if Ms. Parker thought it was an issue having homeless people around the library, or not. Was she saying that the “Well housed and well fed” are causing “the” problems at the library (it seemed like syringe litter was “the” problem, but I wasn’t clear about that, either).

Thanks for straightening me out.