September 22, 2017

Voters Say 'Yes' to Libraries, Elected Officials Say 'No'

The recent elections prove once again that libraries have nothing to fear from direct democracy. It’s the representational form of government that causes problems.

Time after time, given the opportunity to participate directly, the vast majority of citizens will vote to raise their taxes in the name of libraries. The voters insistently send the message that libraries matter, that they are viewed as an integral part of the social fabric, that the decay of a library leaves them feeling diminished.

For example, in Ohio, 30 of the 38 library issues that were on the ballot this year passed.  Often by crushing margins. LJ reported that in 2009 libraries won 84 percent of operating and 54 percent of building referenda.

And yet somehow this voice of the people is lost on representatives, be they local, state, or federal. For them, the library is a source of easy savings. When it comes time to cut, the library is first in line for the chopping block.

For example, on November 2, voters in Forsyth County, North Carolina, had the foresight to pass, by a 15 percent margin, a $40 million library bond initiative to renovate or replace two branch libraries and the Central Library of the Forsyth County Public Library System.

Most Republicans on the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners had voted against putting the matter before voters, and they lost that effort to trammel the voters’ will. Now, the voters have spoken, and the commission, whose makeup shifted to the right in the election, has already begun to grumble that they will not issue the bonds anytime soon.

“We have seven years” to sell the bonds, Gloria Whisenhunt, a Republican commissioner, told the Winston-Salem Journal.  “I would never vote to raise taxes on my constituents at this time.”

Even though her constituents just voted precisely to do that in the name of the library.

But the most galling example of this proclivity was on display in Michigan. Not only did the governor and the legislature there strip public libraries of $3 million, they did so in contravention of a law that explicitly obliged them to pay the money. So now we not only balance budgets on the back of librarians and libraries, we break the law in the process.

When will our representatives learn that when the people say “yes” to libraries, they mean yes?

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley ( is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.



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