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Survival of the Fittest, and We’re All Pretty Fit

It’s always nice when people praise public libraries, even if those people are librarians. It’s good to know that at least someone is willing to go on the record to say the kind of thing most people would never dare say: libraries are good things.

No, wait, everyone is willing to say that. Probably even most of those people in Oregon who keep voting to shut down their public libraries think public libraries are good in the abstract, as long as someone else is paying for them.

And that’s the tricky part, who pays for them? Those folks in Oregon thought the federal government should keep paying for them in the roundabout way it had been doing for years, but weren’t willing to pay for libraries themselves.

The rest of us? Well, libraries tend to be popular. Taxes to support them often pass. Lot of public libraries, the Carnegie ones, were founded only because the community was willing to continue supporting them after Carnegie donated the startup funds.

But now, as many librarians know from the barrage of emails from the ALA trying to get us to call our representatives and such, federal library funding is under attack in the President’s latest budget.

There’s yet to be any evidence that the President or the ruling party can actually get a budget passed, but maybe it will happen and the IMLS will go away.

According to New England Public Radio, this proposal has a commentator “thinking about what she sees as the crucially important places that libraries take us.”

Praise of libraries doesn’t get much more lyrical than this:

There’s nothing that replaces what libraries do: benevolent social connection. Access for everybody to all sorts of information. A haven for dreamers.

Without libraries, we are lost.

This is all well and good, but the implication here is that if federal support for libraries goes away, then so will public libraries, and if they go away “we’re lost.” That’s just not true, at least the first part. The second part might be IF we were without libraries, but that’s another topic.

The IMLS is a minor portion of library funding nationwide. Important? Sure. Useful? Definitely? Necessary? No.

This is the kind of absolutely true statement that the ALA propaganda machine would consider heresy against the library gospel, but there it is.

IMLS funding is about $230 million. There are about 35,000 museums in the U.S. and about 16,536 public library locations. That $230 million divides to about $4500 per museum and public library. Add in the 98,460 school libraries, and that ends up being about $1500 per museum and public or school library.

There might be museums or libraries which depend on IMLS money to survive, and if so those museums and libraries might have to close.

Of course, there are other options.

The option that libraries seem to love the most is doing more with less. Funding cut? Just work harder!

Librarians rarely seem to believe that if they have less money they should just do less, perhaps under the assumption that if they start doing less, people will want to fund them even less, and then the whole country winds up just like rural Oregon, as unlikely as that assumption is.

Another option is just to do less. No IMLS grant for that crucially important program on some trendy topic? Don’t do it, then.

And then there’s the third option: find other funding.

$230 million is almost literally pocket change for the super rich, and it’s tax deductable, and super rich people are always looking for ways not to pay taxes on money that the government can identify that they’ve earned somehow, so that’s a plus.

It probably won’t work at the federal level, though, because public libraries at least are community institutions, “all about connection” as the earnest commentator says, and the America isn’t a community. No country is, but certainly not a country as large and diverse as the U.S.

Federal government funding is nice and all, but the libraries that will thrive will be the ones that seek out donations and other private support. A lot of libraries have to do this already.

Other than the loss of funding from the IMLS, which isn’t a steady income stream anyway, it’s hard to see what is wrong with this. Libraries really are about community, and as such the community should, and usually does, come together to fund them. If not? Then the community didn’t really want a library, but that’s rare.

That’s why the stories out of rural Oregon are news, because they don’t happen that often. It’s very rare for a public library or library system to just shut down from lack of funding.

The usual thinking about funding is that if libraries are funded people will use them, but it’s also true that a community that actively funds libraries is more engaged about using them, and even if the people putting up the money don’t use them, they get tax breaks and an excuse to feel good about themselves for contributing to the public good.

If we enter an age of federal fiscal austerity, defined as an age when only the military is extravagantly funded, libraries are going to have to work harder, do less, or find other funding.

If libraries and museums can’t survive without that relatively small amount of federal money, and can’t work harder, do less, or find other funding, then they won’t survive. But the chances of that happening are small.

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Comments

  1. Of course you are correct. Of course you are saying things that go directly against the “ALA propaganda machine.” In my opinion, that is why no one has yet commented here.

    ALA trains them not to respond to truthful messages like yours that go against ALA diktat. Library funding strategy sources like EveryLibrary even advise librarians to ignore anyone who opposes fund raising efforts.

    And look, no responses to what is otherwise the most popular of all librarian opinion columns.

    Well done, AL, for being a truthful voice in librarianship. I’m sure Will Manley and the few other voices of reason willing to speak out would be proud.

  2. Too many managers..... says:

    We create our own funding problems. Libraries are top-heavy with over-paid management. We have a director, a #2, a #3, and then 5 managers who work for #3 overseeing the building supervisors. Some of these managers supervise a handful of people and spend most of their times in meetings or driving to another meeting. All make serious money, yet we cannot afford proper security where needed. Horrible priorities of lib management are killing us.

    • Not Enough Natives says:

      I have noticed that myself. Its becoming like a creepy cult where a few well paid people hire 100 volunteers to do everything and maybe a couple of part-time workers just to look honest. Each library has 90% management 10% staff these days, which means one must slave for free until they can be blessed to marry the Director.

  3. anonymous coward says:

    How many people write under the AL banner? I’m finding it hard to reconcile the good points here with the post from June 12.

  4. Maura Walsh says:

    This seems a bit arrogant and perhaps short sighted. In my state, school and rural libraries would have to forego access to databases, prisons and psychiatric facilities would probably not have any libraries, and training for library staff, particularly in poorer communities, would be severely impacted. The pipe dream of a fairy godmother replacing funding is

  5. I have noticed that myself. And its everywhere. I

  6. I have noticed that myself. And its everywhere.

  7. J Rodriguez says:

    Great post; I don’t trust what I hear directly from a very left-leaning ALA office.

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