Libraries in Peril

November 3, 2009 at 3:27 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 12 Comments

Our county’s libraries will be closed for ten days over the holidays due to budget cuts.  [Cue screaming]

They are short $1.7 million and elected to shut down temporarily rather than lay off staff.

Imagine my feelings, on the one hand.  In the final week of my 500-book challenge, I won’t be able to pick up anything new.  I grumble.

On the other hand, why is this happening in this way?  Our libraries draw over 90% of their funding from property taxes.  Personally, I’m a renter.  I don’t pay property taxes, and I imagine a large number of other library users don’t either.  The point is to provide media to people who couldn’t otherwise afford it, and I’ll fight to protect that until my dying breath.  Still, I can’t help but wonder whether a bit of marketing might convince others in my position to help out with library funds a bit.  Call it a sort of ‘sliding scale.’

Do you understand where I’m going with this?  I know intellectually that I could donate cash to my library.  But I don’t have a way of knowing how much they need or how much my personal usage costs the library system.  Do library fines actually defray the total cost of overdue or lost books?  If there is a way to volunteer time, what would be the most helpful to keep the doors open – shelving books?  Not that I’d want to put anyone out of a job, mind you.

I’ve lived with libraries that had a book rental system.  Several copies of new books experiencing high demand would be made available at $1 and $2 a day.  Business was brisk for those who didn’t want to wait 4-6 months but didn’t want to buy a new book they’d finish in a week, either.  I’ve heard complaints that this isn’t fair to people of limited means.  Speaking as a former slum resident who has gone hungry many a night, I think the book rental system would be a terrific impetus for someone to build literacy skills.  “I really want to read this, and if I can’t finish it this weekend, it will cost me a day’s bus fare.” [flip flip flip]

I’m reading What the Dog Saw, the new Malcolm Gladwell, and in his essay on fighting homelessness he says we get so caught up in doing things “right” that we perpetuate problems, rather than “give in” ethically and come up with a working solution.  I say it’s right to keep libraries open, as many as possible as often and as late as possible.  Whatever it takes to make that happen, let’s do it.

Some ideas:

  • Book rental.  Just do it and quit crying about it.  Keep some free copies in circulation but charge those who can pay up the wazoo for convenience copies.
  • Internships.  Get those unsupervised high schoolers cracking.  Can they open shipping containers, label new books, shelve returned books?  Vacuum the floors?
  • Special hours.  Create a program where a patron can pay, say, $2500 a year for a special ID card that allows library access at a time hoi polloi can’t get in.  Like ‘adult swim’ at the pool.  Maybe 6-7 one day a week.
  • Social services.  Bill the relevant city for babysitting frequent-flier homeless who have nowhere else to go during the day.  If you can’t provide public restrooms anywhere else, you need to subsidize the library for doing it for you.
  • Donations.  Simply put up posters estimating the cost per checkout for a book, CD, or DVD.  Put a locked donation box under it.  If I realized it cost exactly $3.75 for me to read the new Malcolm Gladwell, heck, I’d pay it.  Tip jars are an automatic response for a lot of people.
  • More donations.  Put a sticker with the patron’s name in it if someone donates enough to buy a specific new book.  Do it like the Giving Tree.  “The library wants 10 copies of the new Alison Weir.”  Patrons pull off the tag and bring it back taped onto a new item.
  • Fee per service.  All those people who come into the library solely to use the computers to play poker or look at porn can pay.  Is $1 an hour excessive?  Kinko’s charges something like $8 a minute.

A world without libraries would be too dreadful to contemplate.  Let’s see what we can do to make sure that doesn’t happen.


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  1. I have to admit that with my staggering tbr pile I hardly ever frequent my library. They also tend to have a shortage of any good non-fiction books (very small town and very small population for the whole province so other libraries are equally poorly stocked). However, I love your suggestions!!

    Book Rental – I would love that! I hate waiting forever to get a book because someone has had it out for months. That is the main reason I originally stopped using the library and started buying instead. And More Donations – What a great way to help the library and to do it in a way that also helps yourself (i.e. they want a book that you want to read anyway… if you donate the book it will be there for you to check out later!).

  2. You didn’t mention the library sales- my favorite thing. I know I spend quite a bit at them, and not just the one near my house- I go to half a dozen in my county, having found out last year when/where they all are.

    I’d make donations, when I could- and I’m curious to know what it costs the library to provide me with a book to check out.

    • I agree that book sales are a great way to raise funds. I was just trying to think of things we weren’t already doing here. Maybe book sales could be held more often… It seems like some donations are discarded for lack of storage space over the course of a year.

      The other thing I wonder about is whether libraries could sell more of the circulating books that they currently throw out.

  3. I don’t spend much time in libraries anymore, but I can’t imagine a world without them. I believe your funding ideas should be explored before reducing hours or closing libraries. Libraries are a life-blood of the community and we have to look out for them or they will be gone.

  4. Those sound like some great ideas. Our libraries are facing similar challenges, and the last time I was there, they had put out flyers at the check-out desk asking directly for donations. I think it’s a great idea to let people know what things cost. I will probably donate at some point, but I’d like to know what good it’s going to do. If I donate $50, is that going to keep the library open for an extra 10 minutes, an extra day, is it going to buy 5 new books, 10 new books, 50 new books?

    Was Malcolm Gladwell talking about “Million Dollar Murray?” I just read that article and was encouraged by the simplicity of the solutions that he talked about but saddened by what you mentioned, the fact that people get so caught up in the morality of a solution that they fail to recognize its efficacy.

    • Yep, it was in fact the “Million Dollar Murray” article. I’m obsessed with the issue of homelessness.

  5. My library just raised the prices for their “Friends of the Library” book sale. They were previously .50 for paperbacks and $1 for hardcovers. Now you pay up to $5 for any given book – still a good deal, but the library makes some needed money.

  6. […] Part Two November 10, 2009 at 12:13 pm | In Book Blather, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment First, I posted about a 10-day closure at my library, caused by a budget shortfall.  I wanted to know […]

  7. I wandered by here–I’m on my own reading project (far less ambitious than yours–bravo!) at and I was looking for folks who had posted anything about some of my recent reads (One of Ours just finished, and I’m suffering through the Able McLaughlins). I’m also a graduate student working in a library and getting a library degree, so I couldn’t help but comment.

    I like your out-of-the-box thinking (even though I doubt you could sell the special hours pass for more than $25, it’s an interesting idea), but I thought it would be good to raise a point about charging for services. Public libraries are one of the last outposts of a noble idea–that some things should be available to all. If we impose even the tiniest barriers on Internet use or book use, there is an impact on the very poorest Americans. We can do all we like to reduce that impact–allowing the poor to be exempt from such things, or providing funds to cover them–but we know that many who are in that position will not want to accept such “charity” or will simply be unaware of it. At a time when libraries are busier than ever with people looking for information about jobs, etc., I’m very wary of anything that will impede or discourage those who are destitute.

    But all that said, I’m intending to be a professional working in one of these library systems someday, and for that reason, I applaud any efforts that will meaningfully provide the necessary funds for libraries to accomplish their enormous missions. I have a lot of other thoughts and responses to your ideas here, but as a new guest I’ll try to tread lightly. I imagine you’ll see me back, though–I like the way you think and write (your recent post about the razor’s edge that bloggers walk between what appeals and what is rewarding, what reaches strangers and what touches friends, etc., is spot on). Thanks!

    • Hey again! I like you. Write whatever you want to say – I have a thick skin, and I enjoy controversy. It drives up my visits!

      If you come back and read regularly, you’ll probably notice that I tend to go on and on about the homeless and the disadvantaged. It’s something I’ve written about extensively, as I’ve worked in social services for much of my career and, heck, I grew up in poverty. In fact, the very reason I am so concerned about library fundraising is that library services are being cut. For the first time in my life, I’m getting by with a little to spare, and I find I can do slightly more than just blather on about things that concern me. So what I’m trying to do is to find ways to provide extra funding. Frankly, the financially comfortable don’t need free public libraries. Lending libraries began as a private, fee-based service, as I’m sure you know, and I’d rather they didn’t end that way.

      • Well, with your permission, I was a little more outspoken in replying to your comments on The Able McLaughlins than I’d intended to be. Hope you don’t regret offering me carte blanche. 🙂

        I certainly appreciate and share your political perspective, and your desire to solve the library problem. I just thought (and, honestly, still think) that some of your suggestions, out of a desire to solve the latter, don’t do enough to further the agenda of the former. I think others are really excellent ideas. Overall, I think what we need is a culture shift that realigns what we think tax dollars are for, and what we think a society ought to provide for all. But that’ll be a long time coming, perhaps. We’ll see.

      • Well, sure! Unfortunately, our biggest budget priorities for local government seem to be roads and jails, which are both extremely expensive to maintain. You and I can agree that libraries and schools should be at least higher up the list, but pragmatically, we’re competing against many strong forces.

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