September 27, 2010
The Future of the Public Library
Posted by Christine Hurt

I love libraries.  In college, I worked at the George & Helen Mahon Public Library in Lubbock, Texas.  I was a shelver; I made minimum wage and got a 15 minute break for every 4-hour shift.  I read Love in the Time of Cholera in 15-minute increments when it was a "NEW" book.  I started out shelving in the 300s and the 600s under the Dewey Decimal system.  (The 300s are how-to books, including The Joy of Sex, which I reshelved every morning after retrieving it from wherever a patron squirreled it away -- no one ever checked out The Joy of Sex.)  I was promoted to the Easy section, which is the hardest because toddlers never reshelve, then enjoyed a relaxing seniority stint in Fiction/Detective/Science Fiction.  I think I have had a library card in every city in which I have lived.  I am a regular at "Friends of the Library" sales.

So, this headline seemed sort of ominous:  Anger as a Private Company Takes Over Libraries.  Yikes!  Are corporate raiders toilet-bowling libraries now, selling off books, shelving and microfiche readers?  No.  Municipalities are outsourcing management of public libraries to private concerns.  Whew.  Except some people are quite up in arms.  The fear is that if we run libraries like private businesses, there will be "greater cost, fewer books, less access."  Protests are held.  Petitions signed.  But it seems that the constituency that will lose out are employees, who were public employees with public pensions, and now might be private employees with 401(k)s.  (Of course, in some states I know of, having a 401(k) seems preferable.)  States may well be attracted to moving some of its liabilities on to a different ledger.  Another concern might be if volunteers do a lot of a libraries' work -- people may not volunteer if they see the library as a private, for-profit concern. 

In Champaign, we've had a library crisis of our own.  Here, there is a proposal to require out-of-county folk to pay extra for a library card instead of having reciprocal lending privileges.  Apparently, these "reciprocal" agreements are fairly one-sided, with non-Champaign resident use vastly exceeding use by Champaign residents at out-of-county libraries.  (Ours is new, beautiful, etc.)  The proposed fee is (gulp) $200, the average amount in taxes that a property owner in Champaign county pays to the library each year.  I guess there's no such thing as a free library.  That is a number that made me pause.  That's more than a Netflix account.  (I understand that a bricks-n-mortar operation is much more expensive than a nationwide website with huge economies of scale, etc.).  but $200?  How many families would pay that voluntarily to have library access?  We are heavy users of the library.  We are there most weeks.  But some people probably don't go, and are subsidizing me.  (Of course, I've had the same 3 Netflix movies on my counter for six months, so I'm subsidizing some 24 year-old who stays up a lot later than I do.)  But there are also a lot of families who have less-than-average tax bills, or who rent, who could not come up with $200 a year, but who use the library's services. 

The article never mentioned (and our local debate has not touched on) the reality of public libraries that I experienced during my time as a shelver.  Public libraries are ports in the storm for a lot of people.  They serve as small refuges during the day for all kinds of people from the homeless to latchkey middle schoolers to moms of toddlers who just need a diversion for an hour.  These are challenges to all public libraries, and many embrace all of these populations, others not so much.  So, I would be interested to see if changing the management changes the philosophy in how welcoming libraries are to all comers.

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