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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Want versus need

A week or so ago, the library sent out the first letter in its public information campaign about a potential mill levy question on the 2008 ballot. Since then, I've gotten maybe a dozen responses. About a third of them were positive and often included offers to help. About two thirds were either critical or negative. When people gave their names or emails, I contacted them to answer their questions, or at least let them know that I heard their concerns.

But one response, an anonymous letter, voiced a frank enough concern that got me to thinking: how do we (taxpayers) know that the library actually needs more money?

Let's begin with the basics: the list of human needs is actually pretty small. We need air, water, food, shelter. Once the basics are taken care of, we start to move up the list of more abstract "needs" -- intimacy, productivity, recreation, etc.

What does that mean in the public sector? What do we "need?" Often, police and fire are defined as "essential services." But the truth is, most of us will never need them (we hope!). Of course, when you've been abducted by kidnappers, when there's a fire at your house, police and fire services certainly do fall into the category of "urgent." But most of us won't face that.

"Essential services" are insurance. I pay house insurance, car insurance, medical insurance, and more. I know that most of us certainly pay more than we need -- one need only look at the profits of the insurance industry. If they're making that much, then the risk is overstated, and clearly, the price is too high. Until, of course, you're one of the people that really does need to replace your home, your car, or an important body part.

We spend our money, voluntarily, for such "insurance" because we are able to look ahead, to imagine need. We want to spare ourselves, and our loved ones, catastrophic loss.

Then there's the whole category of other things people spend their money on. Plasma TVs. Humvees. Do people "need" them? No. They just want them. And why? Because they believe that these amenities will improve their lives.

Suppose that hula hoops are popular. And there's a tremendous surge in purchases. The market has spoken: there is a "need" for hula hoops. So more are produced, more are sold, more money is made.

But when I've used the argument of "demand" for library services -- 20% increase per year in circulation for two years running, 18% last year -- there are some folks who say, "but what's the need?" Yet they wouldn't ask that about hula hoops: if demand goes up, of course the supply or price rises. Why should library services be any different?

Do I "need" to read a book? One might argue that literacy is a need to survive in the modern world, but only at a certain level. We don't need to be smart or well-informed. We can get by. Heck, we could all be dumb as stumps and still live. So here's a radical notion: Like TVs, like big or little cars, like houses of 5,000 sf with granite kitchen counters, libraries may not be a need at all -- if "need" means "necessary to continue living."

To date, I've defended the need for increased funding for libraries on the basis of thoughtful, and well-tested library standards. A half a square foot of library space per capita (of a service area) allows us to keep up with the public consumption of books, movies, music, storytime space, meeting rooms, study space, and technology. We know this; we've got 18 years of data to prove it. And we can show that in at least three areas of the county, we're seriously behind the eight ball: we just don't have enough library room to maintain existing levels of use as the county grows, which it continues to do. We certainly don't have the money to build, buy, or run, new ones.

But I think I've learned that there are at least two big groups of citizens: those who don't have to be convinced, and those who can't be convinced. The purpose of a campaign is twofold: to persuade the folks who don't fall into either camp that the "need" for more support is justifiable; and to remind the supporters to show up.

So here's a different argument for library funding. No, we don't need library funding any more than we need more insurance. Or the arts. Or open space. Or air-conditioned schools. Or two bathrooms in a house. But we want strong libraries because it improves the quality not only of our individual lives, but of our community. Our lives are better if we have passionate advocates for literacy in our towns, and a rich supply of cultural offerings, than our lives would be without those things.

So it's a choice: spending more money for libraries preserves the quality of our lives now, and improves them in the future; not spending more means that the quality of our personal and common lives declines. The question is not what do we need to live, but how do we want to live?

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