Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Altruism or Self-Interest?

Oh, goodness, the President has released a proposed federal budget that “miscalculates the value of more than 120,000 libraries across America,” at least according to the ALA.

It supposedly does that miscalculation by “eliminating the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and hundreds of millions of dollars dedicated to America’s libraries through the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA).”

It makes complete sense for the ALA to fight against cutting the IMLS. That’s the kind of political fight librarians should be in, and they usually win since the President doesn’t make the budget, Congress does.

Supposedly, IMLS funding benefits “everyone in our communities, including:

  • Veterans in California who receive assistance claiming well-earned benefits to further their education, get medical treatment, start a business and transition to civilian life.

  • Students in Arkansas who prepare for today’s competitive job market by participating in coding classes taught by trained school and public librarians.

  • Entrepreneurs in rural North Carolina who received business development assistance from an IMLS-funded business and technology outreach librarian.

  • Adults in Kansas who take GED courses and use otherwise cost-prohibitive exam preparation tools to advance their education and improve career prospects.”

That doesn’t sound like an especially representative list of “everyone in our community.” It doesn’t seem to include most of the people who pay most of the taxes to support public libraries, for one thing.

What does the IMLS do for them? Probably nothing.

There’s nothing wrong with that necessarily, but the ALA is relying on a political appeal that’s becoming very similar to that of the Democratic Party, the party currently in power in none of the federal branches of government and in a minority of states.

They appeal to altruism rather than self-interest.

For the Democrats it’s often been a losing strategy. The Democratic Party seems to be loosely comprised of diverse identity groups with little in common other than they’re not white plutocrats, even though white plutocrats seem to actually run the Party.

The white plutocrats in the other party keep winning elections because majorities of voters care more about their own self-interest than they do about transgender restroom issues.

We can say that’s selfish of them, except every identity group within the Democratic Party, and on the left in general, is equally focused on their own self-interests, and understandably so. 

Read some criticisms by Black Lives Matter activists of white feminists in the Women’s March to get an idea of how divisive and incoherent whatever passes for the left in America is these days. “Intersectionality” is a nice buzzword, but it’s not how most people think about politics that affect them.

Library appeals like the one above are similar. What are the white, urban and suburban, middle and upper middle classes who pay most of the taxes going to get out of more library funding?

Most of them aren’t veterans desperate to claim benefits, school children in states with poor education systems, or rural adults. Why those examples?

If you’re not a public or school librarian, even as a librarian your only interest in this funding is altruism.

I’m not knocking altruism. Most people naturally like to help other people, but most people also don’t like paying taxes.

Often enough in the past, ALA rhetoric was about self-interest. Public libraries save people money, increase property values, enhance the community somehow, stuff like that.

Now it seems to be always about how well libraries serve the downtrodden. Based on what I hear about the good libraries do, everybody in the country seems to need them so they can use the computers to apply for jobs. It doesn’t even matter if they have books anymore as long as people can fill out online job applications.

This particular appeal will probably be “successful,” at least in the sense that Congress is unlikely to cut so much library funding, if nothing else because libraries are popular even if the ALA isn’t.

But in general, librarians should also try appealing to people other than the downtrodden and those of us who want to help them.

For most people, if they pay taxes, they expect something for themselves from government. Lots of them hate the idea of “other people” getting all the benefits while they pay all the taxes.

An appeal to self-interest will probably be a lot more persuasive than the appeal to altruism, because as America has demonstrated amply in the past and the present, nobody really cares about the poor or the downtrodden unless they think they’re in danger of becoming poor or downtrodden themselves.


Please note that new comments for all posts on this blog have been closed.


  1. anonymous coward says:

    You will get (more) hate for this- but it is absolutely true.

    I would argue that the ALA has no idea how to make an argument for federal funding of local libraries that would appeal to the majority of Americans.

  2. Peter Ward says:

    Why do we still need public libraries? Until we come up with an answer that appeals to most people, libraries will continue to feel the crunch.

  3. carl jacobs says:

    If you ask most adults what they value about a library, they will say that it encourages a culture of reading in their children. It’s an answer rooted in nostalgia. For my part, I quickly learned that I could manage that task much more effectively with a combination of Barnes & Noble, the Internet, and a good used bookstore. The library was too inflexible, too inaccessible, and too much of a hassle. It simply provided no service to me that I could not obtain at less cost (financial or otherwise) in other ways. As my kids found less reason to use the library, I had less reason to use the library. My kids are grown now. At this current time, I cannot think of a single reason that would require me to ever use the library again. I simply don’t need to check out materials anymore.

    The library was a solution to the problem of information scarcity. We don’t live in a world of scarce information anymore. So what is the library for? What essential service does it render to the general public? The answer to that question is not obvious to those of us who haven’t used a library in 20 years and haven’t suffered any ill effects as a result.

  4. Dear AL,
    Thank you for this concise explanation for why the Dem’s lost.


  5. Dear Mr. Jacobs,
    The relentless logicality of your forecast for the future of the public library has convinced me that all along I have been living in a fool’s paradise, having blindly hitched my wagon to an all but expiring star.
    I can only hope others like me will read your analysis and realize the pointless futility of continuing to use and support their local library before it is too late for them!
    With shame and embarrassment,

  6. I use my local library all the time to check out print and electronic books. I love reading, but I don’t want to buy every book I want to read-even if it’s only a couple dollars from a used bookstore. If I check a book out and absolutely love it and have to own it, then I’ll buy it. I also don’t have the physical space at home to store lots of books, and if you’ve ever helped someone move who owns lots of books, you know how heavy those book boxes can be. Same with ebooks, I don’t want to buy every ebook I want to read, so I check them out from my library. That’s why I find it hard to believe that there are people who don’t think libraries need to exist. I mean a place full of books that you can take home to read? For free?! Awesome! Maybe I’m just in the minority because I’m reading something all the time and for people who haven’t read a book all the way through, cover to cover in decades they don’t get why people like me go gaga over libraries.

  7. Usually the people who complain most about cost and waste of tax money perpetrated by public libraries never actually use public libraries.
    Fear not! All that remains for the rest of us to do is simply keep using them ourselves: inter-library loan, public computers, meeting room space, safe neighborhood hangouts, access to expensive, quality magazines, all available at trifling cost – what a bargain!

  8. dan cawley says:

    Not to be pedantic, but I would wager your library had a grammar book explaining the proper usage of fewer and less. That same book might also suggest not ending sentences with a preposition. Maybe B&N, the Internet, and that “good used bookstore” can help you navigate the language more clearly in future posts. Good luck, sir.

  9. anonymous coward says:

    ^^THIS is why we can’t have nice things. ^^

  10. “If you ask most adults what they value about a library, they will say that it encourages a culture of reading in their children” [citation needed]

  11. carl jacobs says:

    Ya got me, dan cawley. I occasionally make grammatical mistakes. There are also some words that I chronically misspell. Why, I will even end a sentence with a preposition despite the fact that ending a sentence with a preposition is very bad Latin. I will also deliberately break the rules at times just for effect. Do you know what that means? That means I am just like every other soul reading this weblog. Without exception. [Note the deliberate use of a sentence fragment for effect.] About which, a few comments:

    1. This is a comment on a weblog. I allow so much time for writing and so much time for editing. Perfect grammar isn’t a priority.

    2. You can’t build good will for your cause by calling people ignorant. This is especially true when your accusation encompasses virtually everyone who will read your post.

    3. I’m an Engineer. I’ve been an Engineer for 30 years. People generally make allowances for our limitations.

    4. I did mention this is a weblog, right? Context matters.

    In case it wasn’t obvious, the Engineer thing was a joke.

  12. Bob Holley says:

    I’ve published two columns in Against the Grain that contend that public libraries seem ashamed of their success in providing pleasure reading/viewing for adults. I got this idea from teaching an introduction to the profession course where pleasure reading was never mentioned. Instead, public libraries and library associations appear much more comfortable in bragging about achievements like the four at the beginning of this column. My hypothesis is that providing genre fiction and DVDs isn’t the best way to convince funding agencies and perhaps even the general public that libraries are a valuable community resource. I believe, however, that the immense financial benefits that libraries provide to the pleasure readers in their community may be one of the chief factors that assures their survival since doing so supports a much broader community need.

  13. Hi, Mr. Jacobs,
    Yours was an honest opinion, clearly expressed. That “rule” about prepositions went out long ago.

  14. Agreed. It’s a blog post, not a treatise. And if anyone truly wanted to debate the points, both “no service to me that I could not obtain at less cost” and “The library was a solution to the problem of information scarcity. We don’t live in a world of scarce information anymore” are readily challengeable. The former, less so, because we would likely need Mr. Jacobs’ bank statements. The latter, more so, because both premises strike me as refutable and the conclusion drawn is circular.

    But nope, let’s go with sarcasm and grammar policing.

  15. carl jacobs says:

    It’s not so much the size of the bank account. It’s about how you choose to spend your money. But in truth the cost of using the library was largely non-monetary. Books simply aren’t that expensive. The library by contrast was a hassle. Location. Parking. Hours. Forgetting to take the books back after three weeks. Fines. The Used Book Store down the street was just so much more convenient. The marginal financial cost was trivial by comparison.

    That said, the fact that I can’t find a reason to use the library does not indicate some character flaw on my part. It means the library provides no useful service to me. I dropped my Cable TV service for the same reason. It provided no value. It also doesn’t mean that I reject the idea of taxpayer supported libraries. I don’t reflexively oppose library tax accessments as a result. It does mean that I think libraries should justify their existence. I was hoping to see an apologetic for a library in this day and age. “I have access to subsidized reading material” is not much of an apologetic.

    One thing I believe absolutely. The future of the library will not be found in large amounts of floor space dedicated to large stacks of hard copy books. That model is going away. What will replace it is an interesting question.

  16. John Falstaff says:

    What should be the role of the library is education, a place for the person whose curiosity exceeds their ability to think critically. OTOH, the library will become a craft center and meeting hall.

  17. Bob Holley says:

    To answer Carl Jacobs, I can see his point of view. I would be curious to know what his income is. I know from selling on Amazon that most books would cost around $5.00 with some paperbacks and very common items less than that. If a family of four each read two books a week, not an unreasonable number, that would be $20 per week or around $1,000 per year. With the average income for an American family hovering around $60,000 annually, this might not be an inconsequential sum. In fact, to purchase cheap books, the right strategy might be to come to the library book sale. The one at my library has an excellent selection at $1.00. Many people also don’t have a used bookstore right down the street. For the reasons Carl gives above, one of the richest suburbs in Detroit voted not to have a public library.

    I use my library mostly to obtain art and foreign films. The consortium that my public library belongs to has collectively a large selection. While parking isn’t a hassle, I usually walk or ride my bike with a trip under ten minutes. Finally, I have access to a large collection of ebooks and borrowable media so that I don’t even have to leave home to check out materials. The future public library will most likely head in that direction and move away from print collections; but the library has, in my opinion, the moral duty to continue to support those users who don’t have the money for high-speed Internet connections or enough computers or reading devices to support all family members reading/viewing habits at the same time.

  18. Coming at this as a Canadian will probably feed some resentment, but I have to say that neither AL nor the previous commentators have come up with anything that supports both altruism and self-interest. Here it is: Libraries are the generators of culture. And I mean culture in the broadest sense. They foster depth of understanding, advancement of knowledge, education (which is more than knowledge) and ultimately the prosperity that arises from cultural depth. Libraries are feeders of prosperity, monetarily and in terms of well-being. Other institutions are feeders, but libraries are foundational because they come without political, educational or cultural agendas. They just provide people with what they need. Their death would be a profound loss to society, even to the money and power that some library critiques crave.

  19. Databases and materials to be checked out are what the middle class gets out of libraries. They are the ones who tend to interact with libraries in the most traditional way and partake less of the “services” libraries provide or in programming, though storytime and summer reading programs are in my experience quite popular even in upper class neighborhoods. They also tend to be more proficient library users and thus don’t interact with staff as much. At least, that appears to be the case extrapolating from my own middle class self.

    It’s something of a conundrum. I use libraries a lot, but I have next to no use for librarians at least in a traditional reference or programming or literacy sense because I don’t need them to help me find things. I encounter a lot of patrons like this. Some examples:

    1. People who come in and use our genealogy databases. I know they exist because we have high monthly usage in the reports, and yet I almost never get anybody asking me about these databases or how to use them.
    2. People who come in and fill up a basket full of picture books for their kids each week and head straight for checkout without talking to anybody or little old ladies who come in and fill up the basket with cozies or Amish romances or whatever every few weeks.
    3. People who come in with laptops or notepads, sit for hours doing research, and leave piles of books they pulled behind on whatever: starting a business, WWII history, any number of things.
    4. Patrons who come in to get ILLs for obscure or expensive stuff.

    The reason people don’t use that in PR so much is because this is mostly the stuff of leisure and not of necessity. I interact with libraries the same way I interact with public parks. Most everybody seems fine with the idea that middle class people will pay taxes for public parks or beaches or recreation centers or whatever just because they are fun and pleasant, but to suggest they want libraries for that reason seems to fill librarians with existential horror.

  20. Libertarian Librarian says:

    The d**n flu has kept me behind. I going to be blunt and that the IMLS cut lies at the feet of librarians who were hell bent on burning bridges to the White House. FLOTUS sends books to schools. Let’s insult Mrs. Trump, Dr. Seuss, and proclaim our wokeness. Ivanka Trump Kushner Tweets out good tidings to librarians and receives lewd, crude, and rude responses. Why would these actions convince me that librarians have the best interests of all people at heart? Call me names and I’m not going to trust that I can work with you.

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