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.