The Ruffled Crow

Animation, Art, and Other Shiny Things

But Books Just Lay There, They Don’t Do Anything

c 2007 Will Austin

Central Library at Night

Staff from the Seattle Public Library met with the Seattle City Council today to begin hashing out funding issues for SPL beginning in 2011.

All of us here at the library (full disclosure, I am a denizen) are very well aware of the the funding shortfalls in our budget; it’s costing us jobs (fortunately taken care of through attrition rather than lay-offs, but it’s pinching) and operating hours. Plus we get a week off, unpaid… again… Many city and county departments are doing the same thing. It’s also being felt in our collection development, meaning we don’t order as many titles, or as many copies of popular titles, as we would have prior to the economic downturn.

In doing a quick read it appears that there are a half-dozen or so proposals on the table and about all of them will require legislative action and a few will pit SPL’s funding against the needs/wants of other city departments. Not a pleasant position to be in.

Larry Lange at seattlepi.com sums it up pretty well:

Even with a $50.9-million budget this year, the system will have to lay off three staffers and has cut back hours at 15 branches to deal with a revenue shortfall.

This year’s capital budget for maintenance was cut 37 percent, and libraries are likely candidates for more spending reductions as the City deals with a general-fund budget revenue shortfall estimated at $121 million through 2012.

Read the rest of his article here, it’s a good overview.

The raw Statements of Legislative Intent (SLIs) aren’t exactly thrilling tales, but they are pretty enlightening reading. One thing that caught my eye, though, was a metric they are using; per capita cost.

From the Library’s SLI response:

Washington public libraries are well-funded compared to public libraries in most other states. For public libraries serving over 250,000, the 2007 mean expenditure per capita nationally was $36.33, the 2008 average per capita spending in Washington was $60.33. Based on adjusted Census population numbers and adjusted 2010 operating budgets, the 2010 per capita local spending for The Seattle Public Library was $85.93 and $71.82 for the King County Library System.

The comparison of the “mean expenditure per capita nationally” to the “average per capita spending in Washington” is pretty questionable in my opinion. Average and Mean are two very different things and to allow an implication that they are equivalent measures on an equivalent scale doesn’t sit well with my digestion.

I will grant, however, that per capita cost is a valuable metric, especially when you are talking about taxes on that very same per capita, but as a metric in isolation it means fairly little, especially in an apple v orange situation. Usage/Spending and Collection value/Spending are two numbers I’d love to see as well. Yes, the value vs spending would be an impossible chore to compile, but it would be a cool number anyways.

Seattle isn’t the only city with Libraries in its sights. Check out this report from a Fox News affiliate in Chicago. (with video goodness and a link to their Library Commissioner’s response)

With the rhetoric in full song over government spending, Public Libraries are turning out to be an easy target. It’s easy to paint public libraries as fiscal holes because they don’t generate revenue, but that’s like asking a cat to bark. Libraries aren’t in that business, they are there to inform, educate, and entertain their communities.

And how do you valuate that?

Well, its not by assuming everyone on a computer is surfing porn as the Fox Chicago report seems to. Besides the increase of electronic media in the catalogue, access to various databases is part of what SPL does. These days many of those people the Chicago reporter saw on computers were possibly looking for jobs and they were at the library because they don’t have the internet, or perhaps even a computer, at their home. Oh, and let’s not forget library-sponsored reading and interest-group programs.

As a kid I spent alot of time at my local library branch in Lake City, so much so that when I met a Librarian again 30-some years later at a branch event there she remembered me. I don’t know if she actually did remember me, but she said she did before I even had to say anything and that sure felt great as she was my favorite Librarian. In any event, I read alotta the books that branch had, and magazines, and microfiches and, well you get the idea.I freely admit to a great love for my library, and public libraries in general and really feel kind of honored to work in one, so don’t look to me for any gut-level impartiality. But I do know that since ancient times libraries have been important as equalizers and stabilizers to society and they are critically important to their local communities.

There’s alotta stuff packed into a library, and we have an excellent system here in Seattle. Let’s make sure we value it correctly.

The man who built 2,500 libraries world-wide, including several still in use today in the Seattle Public Library system, says it best:

There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.

Andrew Carnegie

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