Public libraries are one of our most easily recognizable public goods. Most everyone knows that local public libraries are free to all, and most understand that this is because these libraries are supported collectively, by our taxes. But until New Hampshire citizens voted in 1833 to support a public library in Peterborough, and until the British Parliament passed the Public Libraries Act of 1850, access to collections of books depended upon one’s wealth or one’s connections to the private libraries of nobility and merchants, to exclusive universities, to law offices, or to the inner sancta of monasteries.
This Post is prompted by the potential loss or degradation of yet one more public library in the United States – in this case the one in Escondido, California, which may be privatized.
Here’s the situation: Escondido library privatization? No: Maintain public control
Privatizing public libraries does not mean that taxpayers stop paying the cost. No. What it means is that the operation of the library is contracted out to a private, for-profit corporation.
Taxpayers keep paying -- but in order to meet the profit requirements of the newly engaged private operator, one of two things must happen: either the cost to taxpayers must go up or the quality of services must go down. Since outsourcing is ordinarily misrepresented as a more efficient and fiscally responsible alternative to the public operation of libraries, most often it is the quality of library services that declines. Communities must put up with reduced library hours, fewer book purchases, fewer magazine or database subscriptions, less frequent repair or replacement of well-used children’s books, and fewer or more poorly-paid staff. And there is little evidence that library privatizations even save money.
Some cities, beset by anti-tax fervor, are simply closing down their libraries. Roseburg, Oregon
is one example. Miami-Dade
has also considered shuttering its libraries.
The anti-tax crusades in recent years are taking their toll on public goods at many levels. The local public library is just one of the targets in their sights. But it’s one that is not going down without a fight, because so many citizens use libraries---not just for entertainment but for education and study, for job searches, for access to computers and reports of current events, for after-school tutoring---and they appreciate the daily benefits of this very visible public good.
To learn about the astonishing and precarious role of public libraries today, go to the Free for All