Another intelligent patron emailed me today. It's very much in keeping with my previous post. He cited what seems to be today's myth: the Internet has made libraries obsolete. Never mind that no one reads whole books on the computer, and certainly not children's books. I focused on, really, the idea of "need" again. I wrote, "...by every conceivable measure -- library visits, library reference questions, children's storytimes attended, adults attending programs and meetings, and of course, the plain number of items checked out -- library use [in Douglas County] is increasing at least three times faster than our population. That is not the profile of an obsolete institution. That looks, in fact, like a successful business facing extraordinary demand. In the private sector, demand equals sales. In the public sector, our costs do not include profits, so our 'sale' is conducted via elections."
I grew up reading, and greatly admiring, Ayn Rand. But ultimately, I rejected her brand of extreme libertarianism. Her fallacy was that she equated taxation with coercion. But taxation is nothing more than a cooperative purchasing agreement. What would be profit in the private sector, is reinvestment in infrastructure in the public (except, of course, where the public sector pays the private sector for services, such as architect fees, contractor fees, etc.).
Yes, if you don't pay your taxes, you go to jail. But the outcome of a successful tax election is a contract between the institution and the public: payment for services. If you break any other contract, you might go to jail, too.
Some libertarians will say, "Just charge those people who use the library for this demand, and use their money, not mine." But these are people for whom "the public good" no longer exists.
The Douglas County Libraries checked out more children's materials in 2007 than any other library in Colorado. We are not the biggest library. We don't have the most books. We don't have the largest population, or even the largest children's population. What we do have is a clear focus on literacy, and parents who value that. We promote reading, and more than a third of our business is now the pre-reader. How can anyone believe that that's not a good thing?
If we were to charge for each item, what would be the result? By raising the cost of borrowing a book, we would clearly reduce children's access to them. We'd have fewer books in fewer homes.
The gain, for some, is obvious. "I spend less." The loss is equally obvious: we get less. We get a community, a society, in which only those children whose parents inherit or earn discretionary money, and value literacy, are encouraged and actually enabled to read.
Library literature is full of stories we don't often share with the public at large. The gang member who hid out in the library, and read his way out of the ghetto. The child from a broken or violent home who found sanctuary and encouragement in a space he didn't have to rent, or buy something to sit in. The child of a laborer who became the CEO.
I am myself the child of a family who would not have paid to buy or borrow all the books I read. Those books made my life.
So one argument on behalf of library funding is this: until all children have independent incomes sufficient to enable their learning to the extent their natural curiosity and ability permit them, we need public support. Unless, of course, ignorance is more important to us.