Run it like a library
I've been noodling the title of my book. First, it was "Who Needs Libraries?" But I thought that was too negative. Next, I thought, "The Public Library and the Public Good: A Renaissance." That was closer to what I wanted to do: write a book celebrating the significance of the institution I love, and using it as a metaphor for some larger issues. But now I'm thinking I'll call it, "Run It Like a Library: the Public Library and the Public Good." It's got a little more snap.
Anyhow, here's how I got there:
In 2007, I was stumping in the county for a mill levy increase. The intent was to raise sufficient funds to build three clearly needed libraries (in communities where growth was significant, and library use was high). As part of that public outreach, I spoke to a Republican breakfast club, easily one of the most conservative groups in the county.
I gave a little history: our library had moved from the worst-ranked library in the state in 1990 (on the basis of hours open, holdings per capita, reference questions per capita, visits, programming attendance, etc.) to the most highly ranked library of our size in the nation in 2006 (Hennen's American Public Library Rankings). I explained the standards that we used for planning, and the specific pressures that made us conclude our community wanted expanded services.
Inevitably, one of the breakfast crowd asked, "Why don't you run the library more like a business?" I asked, "How many businesses in the room have no debt?" No one raised his hand. "The library has built or renovated seven libraries out of aggressive savings. No debt." Then I asked, "How many of you have seen a 52% increase in business activity of the past three years? For us, 'activity' would be the number of items checked out, which have increased by about a million a year - so not insignificant." One hand went up. "And how many of you have seen this increase while actually reducing the number of staff by thoughtful investment in technology?" The hand went down. "How many of you have been acknowledged among your peers as the best business of your kind in the nation?" Crickets.
"Why," I asked, "don't you run your business more like a library?"
On the one hand, this clever little turnaround has a lot of truth to it. Most libraries in the United States are indeed well-run, and collectively, have seen almost geometric increases of use over the past twenty years. On the other hand, how many minds did I change that day? None, I think. While I had stymied their almost reflexive criticism of libraries, I could see in their faces that they were still opposed to the very idea of support of a public entity.
"When businesses need capital, they go to banks," I said. "In the public sector, you're the bank. So you're who we come to, making the case for our performance, our plans, our business record. Our performance is top of class. Our plans are clear and specific. Our business record is impeccable. What's the objection?"
The objection was that these Republicans couldn't see success in any way but profit. "Why don't you just charge for library cards, or to check out books?" one person asked. "Because our purpose isn't profit, it's to promote literacy," I said. "Raising the price of cards, putting a per-use fee on a children's book just means that the use would go down. America's problem is not that children are reading too much."
The truth was, many citizens wanted to impute a single goal to any publicly-funded organization: reduce its tax support. But what businessman would argue that its primary purpose was to reduce its sales, meaning its primary source of income?
One of the deeper insights from this exchange is that "return on investment" is considered only in terms of dollars. Some people understand that strong schools translate to high property values. Moreover, numerous library studies have shown that there are several kinds of positive values from a tax investment in libraries, among them (see http://www.lrs.org/documents/roi/douglas.pdf):
* Cost to Use Alternatives: The estimated amount of money that would have been spent using an alternative information source.
* Lost Use: The estimated value of the lost information for users who would not have tried to attain the information elsewhere.
* Direct Local Expenditures: Contributions made by the library to community businesses and individuals in the form of purchasing goods and services.
* Compensation for Library Staff: Library staff would not receive compensation and unemployment would be a factor for at least some period of time.
* Halo Spending: Purchases made by library users from vendors and business[es] that are located close to the library. A recent study found that approximately 23percent of these purchases would not occur if the library did not exist. For Douglas County Libraries, the ROI was approximately 5 to 1; that is, $5 of value for every tax dollar.
But the truth is that "return on investment" has many other factors than can be readily calculated. For example:
* a common denominator among the incarcerated is illiteracy;
* children of literate households tend to be healthier as children, and live longer, healthier lives as adults;
* children of literate households tend to attain more education, and make more money.
There is no reliable way to assess the cost of prisons that didn't have to be built, or of families that didn't depend on social welfare programs. Nonetheless, public libraries establish and maintain communities in which the quality of life is higher, and of human misery is lower. In communities where libraries are strong, more than money is saved.