Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Trendy and valued? Look up the library -- Nov. 22, 2011 column


As eBooks nudge aside traditional volumes, brick-and-mortar bookstores vanish and Google makes memory obsolete, libraries are suddenly trendy.

In midtown Manhattan, a luxury boutique hotel called The Library Hotel has 10 floors, each dedicated to a different category of the Dewey Decimal System. The New York Times reports that “libraries are the new lobbies” in fashionable hotels around the world, and hoteliers believe that “books are the social lubricant of the future,” whatever that means.

The Occupy Wall Street encampments have set up libraries. The one in New York’s Zuccotti Park had accumulated more than 5,000 donated books before police removed it.

Ball State University has put up a database of the borrowing records of every Muncie, Indiana, library patron between 1891 and 1902 called What Middletown Read.

And in 2011 city and town libraries across America are busier than ever. People rely on libraries for Internet access, and reference librarians help researchers find accurate information amid the online dreck.

And here’s something that comes as a surprise in our supposedly tax-loathing culture: Voters are willing to pay for libraries.

On Nov. 8, voters in Pittsburgh, a city that has been ranked America’s “most livable,” approved 2 to 1 a referendum to raise the real estate tax rate. The beneficiary was the public library.

Cash-strapped Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh had said it would have to close five branches, lay off staff and cut service hours nearly 30 percent. The people said no, raise our taxes instead.

The vote was all the more remarkable because the city has long been in financial turmoil, its budget subject to state oversight through three mayors and eight years.

Politicians in Washington who believe voters would rather pepper spray themselves than pay higher taxes might learn from Pittsburgh – and from California, Colorado and Ohio.

California and Colorado defeated ballot measures last year that would have severely hurt libraries, Library Journal reported. And in Ohio, 80 percent of local library issues in 2010 were successful. The Ohio Library Council said the local library levies replaced state money lost to budget cuts.

In Pittsburgh, voters agreed to a .25-mill increase in the property tax. It’s not a huge investment for an individual taxpayer. The owner of a house valued at $100,000 will pay $25 more annually, $1,105 in taxes compared with $1,080. All told, though, the increase will produce $3.2 million a year for the library.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s editorial page crystallized the issue this way: “The Post-Gazette is adamantly opposed to raising the city’s property tax rate, particularly at a time when it is trying to attract new residents, improve its attractiveness as a place for doing business and maintain the quality of life in its neighborhoods.”

But, said the paper, the referendum was “specifically about quality of life.”

That bears repeating: “specifically about the quality of life.” Improving the quality of life should animate every discussion we have about taxing and spending, deficits and budget cuts.

Many people will willingly pay higher taxes if they support where the money is going. The “if” is important. Nobody has patience with wasteful spending, and altruism is wearing thin. People have to believe tax dollars support programs that benefit them and their community.

For those who think libraries are relics of the past, the American Library Association has some stats: There are more public libraries than McDonald’s in the United States, 59 percent of Americans have library cards, and more than 65 percent of libraries offer services for job seekers.

In a 2009 survey for the library association, 96 percent of people said they believe libraries help give everyone a chance to succeed because libraries offer free access to materials and resources.

Tough economic times lead to tough choices. Nearly three-fourths of libraries that responded to a Library Journal survey last year said their budgets had been cut.

In his later years, the 19th century industrialist Andrew Carnegie donated more than $40 million and paid for the construction of nearly 1,700 libraries in the United States, including the one voters in Pittsburgh saved.

Libraries aren’t just trendy. They speak volumes about the quality of life.

©2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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