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Minnesota Librarians Blow $45K

There was a bit of fury in Minnesota last week when the news broke that librarians used public funds to pay sci-fi writer Neil Gaiman $45,000 to speak and hang out at a public library for four hours. His appearance initiated a season of author appearances for something called Club Book, described as " a metro wide program started to expose suburbia to authors of critical national acclaim."

In reading the comments, it’s pretty clear that most suburbanites don’t want to be exposed to such authors, especially if the exposure is paid for with part of their state sales taxes.

There’s some of the contemporary "tea party" fervor in the comments to be sure, and if tea partiers read books at all they probably don’t read Neal Gaiman. Gaiman’s famous and all, but obviously not a big hit in Minnesota. Perhaps the librarians should have gotten best-selling authors Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck. They’re nationally acclaimed authors who have been widely criticized, so it would almost have fit the requirements.

Some of the critics of Gaiman’s fee are pretty ludicrous, especially ones who complain that money would be spent on an author, but not on a sports stadium. Tax breaks and public money spent on sports stadiums are a boondoggle for taxpayers, though. At least people could go see Gaiman for "free." I don’t necessarily see a reason to publicly subsidize a best-selling author, but there’s always a lot of public money spent on stupid things. People never complain when they like the stupid things, only when they don’t.

The defenders aren’t necessarily much saner. Here’s one commenter:

I’m always amused by people who announce that because they’ve never heard of someone, that person is clearly worthless. When you become King Of The Universe, you can force other people to only read the books you read and only watch the movies you watch and only care about the things you like. And to whoever it was who cited WIKIPEDIA as a "source" of "info" on Gaiman: if you’re foolish enough to believe things you read on Wikipedia, I know a Nigerian prince with an excellent investment deal that you would probably think is a good idea.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this person were a librarian, given the defensive tone and the derisive comment about Wikipedia. A decade ago, librarians got their knickers in a knot over Google and how bad it was. Now that they use Google for everything, the ire has switched to Wikipedia. I bothered to check, and the Wikipedia article on Gaiman has over a hundred citations, many if not most of them relevant and documenting the information appropriately. Anyone who thinks WIKIPEDIA isn’t a decent "source" of "info" on Gaiman is clearly a fool who didn’t bother to check the facts.

The illogical hysteria also screams librarian, as if anyone is talking about forcing anyone else to read or watch anything. It’s similar to the illogical hysteria that claims filtering Internet porn in the children’s section of libraries is an assault on our "intellectual freedom." Grow up, already. Gaiman is a famous writer, but not in the sense that Dan Brown or John Grisham or Patricia Cornwell are famous writers. And he’s definitely not famous like Brad Pitt or Bill Clinton or Madonna. He’s not really famous, he’s just famous for a writer.

Some people are attacking Gaiman himself, which I think is ridiculous. He claims to give the money to charity, but even if he didn’t I don’t see how anyone can fault him. No one, save the unaware Minnesota taxpayers indirectly, is forced to give Gaiman money to speak.

It’s a free market. Sometimes he charges high fees. Sometimes he speaks for free. And every time it’s because he’s invited to speak. I wouldn’t pay anything to hear him speak, and so far he hasn’t shown up on my doorstep demanding my money for his services. He seems like a decent bloke, but even if he weren’t, he’s still not the one to blame.

If there is someone to blame, that is. Maybe we should be assigning credit. The question is, was this a good idea? Some librarians clearly think so.

"He’s one of the greatest living science fiction and fantasy writers in the world,” said Washington County librarian Patricia Conley, who recruited Gaiman for the April 25 reading. “We knew it would appeal to people from all over the area, of all ages, of all stripes.”

Conley no doubt meant well, but something went wrong somewhere. The Minneapolis metro area has over 3 million people, and only 500 showed up. Either he didn’t appeal to many people in the area, or it wasn’t advertised very well. Most likely both. 1/60th of 1% of the population isn’t exactly broad appeal. I guess the folks in Minnesota aren’t as impressed by science fiction as the librarians are. This isn’t exactly exposing many people to great authors.

Even if it was exposing suburbanites to great authors, which it didn’t really do, the decision seems to have been a poor one to promote libraries. Given that the initial goal failed, this could have been a secondary goal. But that failed, too.

Instead of promoting libraries as places that provide crucial access to information and librarians as people who can help people access and assess this information, it’s promoting libraries as places where you can go watch a sci-fi writer for 4 hours and librarians as people who spend $45,000  of tax money to give you that privilege.

It’s especially bad timing given that libraries all over the country are struggling financially. Perhaps those in Minneapolis aren’t, and it’s not like Gaiman’s fee would have gone to libraries in California or Ohio or Pennsylvania. But still.

Some critics did complain about how many books and other library materials could have been purchases with that $45,000, but we should be realistic about the answer. Hardly enough to make any difference at all for a metro area of that size. $45,000 might sound like a lot of money in Dungheap, NE or Toenail, AL, but it’s a pretty small part of the collective library budgets of urban areas. Plus, the money didn’t come from library budgets in the first place.

As with politics, it’s not impropriety that matters, but the appearance of impropriety. $45,000 of public money, 4 hours, 500 people. Only a librarian or a Gaiman fan could argue that was money well spent. Everyone else is going to think the librarians are foolishly squandering tax money. If enough people believe that, eventually the librarians won’t get any tax money to squander.

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Comments

  1. Batman says:

    My god.

    $45,000 to have someone talk about comic books?

    Can you imagine what they would have had to pay for someone to show up in a Spiderman costume.

    First, libraries get suckered by computers, then by twotopian ideals, and finally by comics.

    Western Civilization is dead.

  2. Gwern says:

    Batman: If _The Sandman_ were just words and not also awesome art, the critics would be falling over themselves to praise it.

    Lord knows it’s much better than anything Paul Auster has ever written, or even competing ‘serious’ fantasy like _Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell_.

    (Also, I don’t know why anyone refers to him as a SF author. He’s done very little SF, and even that was extremely ‘soft’ SF – his usual fantasy in different clothing.)

  3. Post Postmodern Librarian says:

    I really wouldn’t mind having him speak at my library or any well known to famous writer but I live in Arm Pit Texas and no ones coming here, because I dont have $45 let alone $45,000. I think we can all agree its the amount spent not the writer or even where it came from. It works out to $90 a head thats a lot of money for a program. I think they would have been wiser to have settled for 1hr and put tons more into ads or to add stuff to the program making him a key speaker. I ll have to check his blog and see what he says!

  4. Varzil says:

    Funny how in a large metropolitan city such as Minneapolis with 3 million people only 500 showed up for a “free” event with Neil Gaiman, but in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, yes Alabama, metro population, 206K, he sold out a 1078 seat theater in 120 seconds, yes 2 minutes.

    Too bad us Alabamans don’t live up to the “whiskey-stained bucktoothed backwoods creep” stereo type.

  5. No. 6 says:

    Whether or not Gaiman is a SciFi or fantasy writer(IMHO, rantasy)really doesn’t affect the argument against paying this much for an author to speak to 500 people.

    I would have to say that this event was poorly promoted, as Gaiman has quite a large fan base. He is an author of several novels and children’s books (Coraline, which was made into a movie) as well as comics. Again, comics or novels, misses the point of this post.

    Public librarians: what is the appropriate amount to pay an author to speak at your library? I’ve never been part of this type of planning.

  6. Batman says:

    Libraries are pillars of the community, not some two-bit comic book strewn den of iniquity.

    We have to be careful of the seduction of the innocent.

  7. Wyvyrn says:

    Obviously you have never read anything by Gaiman. His “comic books”, such as the Sandman series, are literature in graphic form, not something comparable to Batman or Wolverine. Not even Frank Miller’s Batman. He has published over 20 books such as Good Omens with Terry Pratchet. And you are probably familiar with at least two books that have been made into movies, Stardust and Coraline.
    You’re right considering the way you think and the comment you made Western Civilization is dead.

  8. Batman says:

    Gosh, if he puts out a series of coloring books, maybe libraries could pay him $100,000 to speak to 250 people.

  9. LibraryMoth says:

    This makes me think of the day in my reference course when we did reader’s advisory, and the list of resources provided to us were really genre and pulp centric. I realized that if I’m going to be a good librarian, I have to get off my high horse and not force my tastes on my community, but give them what they really want. I wonder what $45,000 used for job training or a computer skills class would have looked like.

  10. Batman says:

    C’mon, it is better to hear an author talk for an hour than to give people access to computers and help them better their lives.

    It is the age old question, do libraries give people what they need or what they want.

    If it is what they want, buy 47 copies of the new Stephen King novel and have DDR contests up the wazoo.

    It sure is a lot more interesting than saving and archiving local history for future generations. Which makes sense, because who is going to want to read a bunch of tweets about hanging out at the library playing video games 200 years from now.

    I am sorry.

    Carry on and read your “graphic novels”. You can even “read” the 911 commission’s report in that form.

    Or better yet, have someone who knows how to read read it too you and you can concentrate on the pictures.

  11. livlife says:

    I’m a librarian working in the TC area. I actually LIVE and use the library services in the county (Washington) that had Gaiman speak. I never heard of this program or it would have been 501. Obviously poor promotion was a HUGE problem. At the time I was even employed by a different public library system in that area…so why didn’t I hear of it? If anything the librarians should be blamed for that.

    While I’m not a huge fan of his work, he’s a well-respected and diverse author and I think it might have been interesting to hear him speak. Four hours seems a bit much, but I honestly can’t think of anyone I would listen to for four straight hours.

    I really wish that people would stop bashing graphic novels and comics. Just because it isn’t your cup of tea doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile as an art form or a literary form.

    Separate opinion from fact. It isn’t that difficult.

  12. Batman says:

    If you tweet about a graphic novel and nobody is around, does it make a sound?

  13. I Like Books says:

    Well, they paid him $45,000 for a public appearance, not $45,000 for a public appearance for 500. If 50,000 people had shown up, I’m not sure that would have made it a better idea at the planning stage. It sure could have been promoted better, though– I didn’t know he was going to be there.

    But the Vikings want $700 million for their new stadium. Everyone else is getting a stadium, and they need theirs, so I guess we’ll just have to save what we can.

    (Well, I’m not sure we can say that’s where the TAXPAYERS’ priorities are. When it failed three(?) times before the voting public, The Powers That Be said “Eh… we’ll just do it anyway.”)

  14. me too says:

    AL, usually like what you say, but I lived in NE for many years. I do take exception to Dungheap, NE. In Nebraska we think New York City is an open sewer and haven for rats. I would bet that even in Alabama there are some sophisticates that would take exception to your characterizations.

    Now to the topic: A foundation should have paid for this NOT public money. The people would have nothing to bitch about.

    [AL: I'm sure every place in NE and AL are lovely. And NYC is an open sewer, but it has an excellent nightlife.]

  15. Agent of Mercy says:

    I bet they could have found a real author and paid a lot less.

  16. Book Chick says:

    Unbelievable! Our entire youth services materials budget for this year is $35,000. I hope that there aren’t many library administrators making these bad decisions. On the other hand, there are always good people looking for jobs.

  17. hvj says:

    my library paid anthony bourdain $5,000 to come and there were over 1,000 people in the audience…

  18. I am Curious, Blue says:

    I was wondering if any public libraries that have quest speakers they pay for charge people to come hear them speak?

    Or do they figure the taxpayers should foot the bill for everyone?

  19. mn mari says:

    would love to hear more about what large public libraries pay to hear big name presenters…….

  20. Un Hip Dork says:

    I love the part of the headline in the quoted story, “The metro-wide program was started to expose suburbia to authors of national acclaim.”

    Gosh, could you big city slickers show me whats to read. Eyes go down to the Grange and gets books out of there but they is mostly farmin books and Danielle Steele. Eyeve never heard of this Internets thing. eye cant waits for it to hit suburbia.

    How condescending in addition to being a waste of money. I live and work in suburbia and there are many times I have to tell the “hipsters” in the nearby city about what is happening.

    And I don’t charge the $45k.

    Maybe I should.

  21. librarEwoman says:

    The unusual thing about this story is not that librarians paid an author with public funds to make an appearance. Rather, the unusual thing is that Neil Gaiman would actually request or accept $45,000 from a public library to make this appearance. I could see him requesting a couple of thousand dollars, but $45,000? That’s excessive. I would say the same thing about any popular public figure making an appearance at a publicly funded non-profit organization. Even if he gave the money to charity, he would have made a better impression to give the appearance for no charge, and let the public library provide some much-needed services and resources to the public with that money. The AL says that $45,000 is a drop in the bucket for a larger library system, and that $45,000 would not buy many books. I divided $45,000 by $17.00, since that seems to be a pretty common price range for the incoming new books at my library. That’s 2647 books, which is a reasonably large number. To put another perspective on this, how many new computers could a library purchase for $45,000? Let’s say that the library spends $1500 on each new computer. They could get 30 new computers. This puts all of this into perspective to me. If I had to choose how to spend this much money, I’d spend it on books or computers in a heart beat, rather than on one public speaker.

  22. I Like Books says:

    The Hennepin County Library System has, I don’t know, around ten branches. And the main library has four floors. And each floor has more than 30 computers. Not all table surfaces are covered with them– some tables are left open for other work. But they basically have as many computers as they can reasonably fit in– as many computers as they want.

    $45,000 seems pretty steep to me. I was wondering if the decimal point was in the right place. But they were probably thinking about something like the marginal increase of value of 30 new computers versus a famous literary speaker. They have computers, they have a budget for books. They must have thought a famous literary speaker would be worth more than that many more computers or books. And he might have been, if it were better promoted.

  23. Ya Butt says:

    Mr. Gaiman had to go to a library in Minnesota.

    I think that $45K was a little on the light side.

    He probably expected the rubes to show up from suburbia and he would have to draw them a picture to show them what his books are about.

    oops, wait a minute….

    nevermind…

  24. Aghast says:

    Ha, I thought only schools got socked with big author appearance fees!

    Seriously, though, this might have had a more successful outcome if the library charged for tickets. That would have given them motivation to promote it.

    When things are “free” people don’t appreciate them.

  25. Mimi says:

    The quote below is from Mr. Gailman’s website FAQ:

    Q. How can I get Neil Gaiman to make an appearance at my school/convention/event?
    A. Contact Lisa Bransdorf at the Greater Talent Network. Tell her you want Neil to appear somewhere. Have her tell you how much it costs. Have her say it again in case you misheard it the first time. Tell her you could get Bill Clinton for that money. Have her tell you that you couldn’t even get ten minutes of Bill Clinton for that money but it’s true, he’s not cheap.

    On the other hand, I’m really busy, and I ought to be writing, so pricing appearances somewhere between ridiculously high and obscenely high helps to discourage most of the people who want me to come and talk to them. Which I could make a full time profession, if I didn’t say ‘no’ a lot.

  26. Didi says:

    Oh my. It would help tremendously if everyone would read Gaiman’s response to this mess. He has high fees for a reason – he doesn’t really want to do lots of speaking engagements; he prefers to write. Also, he normally reduces his fee for libraries but no one at this particular library asked him to because the funds were coming from elsewhere and had to be spent before June 2010 or they’d go away. Also, there were only 500 people there because that’s all the auditorium would hold.

    I’d give a link to his blog, but the comments here don’t allow html. Which is silly. Go to journal dot neilgaiman dot com, and it’s the entry titled Political Football in a Teacup.

  27. DoDo says:

    It is so hard to say, no.

    J.D. Salinger was hounded to the day he died to make appearances.

    Being an author is such a drag.

    Being a librarian is really cool though. We will go anywhere anytime FOR FREE to talk about MARC records and the shift from AACRII to RDA.

    hello

    hello

    is this on?

  28. livlife says:

    @Ilikebooks The Hennepin County Library system has 41 branches and is something like the sixth largest public library system in the country (don’t quote me on that.) Were you perchance shooting for Washington County Library, who paid the money? They have 9 branches. Though the “main library” description you gave fits Minneapolis Central, in Hennepin County, and NOT anything in Washington County.

  29. livlife says:

    And another thing: should we maybe be worried about the precedent here? Or more to the point, should the librarians in Washington County have worried about it? Now you’ve got Joe Author who gets asked to speak. He usually does it for free, but since Neil Gaiman got $45,000 (and let’s face it, Joe is thinking, he not THAT much more famous than me) maybe he ought to charge something?

    Couldn’t we be opening doors we’d rather have bolted shut?

  30. Mel says:

    I notice no one’s pointed out that this was use it or lose it money that was designated to bring authors to the library for speaking engagements, and that it was not from the library budget. Why gather all the facts when we can get outraged for no reason?

  31. sidney says:

    It might have been better to lose it. Then the money could have been spent on something more necessary for the state.

  32. just askin says:

    I’m not sure if the fact that Neil Gaiman lives near Minneapolis Minnesota make this better or worse. On the plus side at least the Library only had to reimburse him for minimal travel expenses, but on the downside maybe everyone in the TC area who wants to has already heard Neil speak.

  33. Mr. Kat says:

    sidney, government money does not work that way. If the library does not use the money this year, then they will not get as much money for their budget next year – and government agencies cannot save money for the years when they will be short – they must spend it all and recieve the same level of money next year or give it back and risk not reciving as much next time through.

    Education, libraries, anything tied to a government paycheck, typically go 11 months and 2 weeks in “OMG we don’t have enough money to even buy toilet paper!” mode to three weeks of “OMG we have to spend ALL of this money YESTERDAY!!” in the final 3 weeks before the end of the fiscal year. You’ll see all sorts of weird purchases occuring around this time frame…

    500 people got a killer deal. It sounds to me like the library should have looked for a larger venue, perhaps even coordinating with the city or other civil agency to get a larger hall and allow that other venue to charge ticket prices to cover the seats. Patrons who go the library could pick free tickets up at the library, the library could give a couple tickets out to the schools or other places where this is common, and those who don’t go to the library would have to pay for their tickets at the box. Win-Win.

  34. Mister Dogg says:

    Sad that this much money was blown in this manner.

    When the original budget was set, someone should have looked at how much was being budgeted to expose suburbia to authors of national acclaim.

    If I were the mayor of whomever gives approval in this situation, I would have said “whoa, what are you spending this money on.?” And if the response I got back was a comic book author who is independently wealthy already, I would have said “Nope.” We have bigger and better things to waste our money on. Try again next year.

    I don’t think in the best of times libraries should be pounding money into these kinds of rat holes. There are plenty of other, more worthwhile and far reaching programs that could be asked for.

  35. Julie says:

    The money came from a fund expressly for bringing an author in, if they had not spent it, it would have been lost. Do some fact checking, please.

    From Neil’s site:
    ““It’s not from the library. It’s from the Legacy Fund, a Minnesota tax allocation that allows the library to pay market rates to bring authors to suburban libraries who otherwise wouldn’t be able to bring them in. They have to use the money now as it won’t roll over to next year and expires next month.”

    http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2010/05/political-football-in-teacup.html