Recently, a local elected municipal official referred to his local public library as “unsustainable”. The quote, during an open meeting, was in reference to anticipated budget cuts in the upcoming year. Another local official in a neighboring municipality recently commented that he didn’t know why the municipality was paying for repairs to the library building. The person to whom he was speaking reminded him that the public library building was owned by the municipality, situated on municipal property, and by a 100-year old agreement, must be maintained by the municipality.
In the first case, the library is one of the largest in St. Lawrence County, receives local funding in the half-million dollar range, and serves a community in excess of 11,000 residents. In the second case, the library is a mid-sized library, operates on an annual budget of $65,000 and serves a population of 4,000 residents. The building maintenance expense in question cost less than $13,000 and resolved a problem that had grown worse in recent years. In other words, perhaps not a planned December 2017 expense, but certainly not a surprise to anyone involved.
Libraries are just one of many of the fundamental aspects of a community – libraries, museums, community centers, recreation facilities, and parks are all necessary components of a successful, vibrant city, town, or village. Communities are places where people live, work, learn, and play. When you remove one of those four fundamental aspects of life, a community suffers. Remove safe and affordable housing, remove sustainable forms of employment, remove formal or informal education, or remove recreational play and the end result is an unhappy place where the word “community” is no longer applicable.
Libraries impact all four of the fundamental aspects of life. People visit the library to look at the newspaper’s classified ads for apartments to rent, use the library’s computers to search MLS listings, and borrow books that help maintain, renovate, landscape, and decorate homes. Libraries are great resources for people searching employments ads, completing online job applications, writing and printing resumes, and borrowing civil service test guides.
Perhaps even more obvious are the roles that libraries maintain in the areas of education and play. Libraries provide books and educational materials for all ages, host early learning spaces, conduct youth reading programs, offer adult literacy coaching, and provide hands-on classes in the arts, crafts, cooking, nutrition, digital literacy, and much more. Libraries offer Lego clubs, game days, fitness programs, community meeting rooms, and often participate in local festivals and events.
Sustainability in all forms comes from creative thinking. For example, libraries have evolved from just “dusty old books” to digital repositories of information such as eBooks, access to computer technology, and the availability of DVDs and other non-print media. The per-person cost to run a library is surprisingly small – yet the potential benefit is so high – someone can check out hundreds of books, DVDs, magazines, and other materials annually at no additional cost beyond a small property-based tax.
So how much do we pay in St. Lawrence County for our libraries? Figures vary widely from library to library as the population size and assessed property values vary from one municipality to the next. Our county libraries receive the vast majority of our day-to-day operating funds from our local municipalities, school districts, or special legislative districts. The average annual library expense on a per-capita basis is about $48 with the median per-capita expense around $37. That’s about the cost of three brand-new books, OR two newly-released DVDS, OR half a month’s home internet service. Few people enjoy paying taxes (myself included!), but what other service provides so much benefit to such a wide community, for such a modest cost?
One of our biggest challenges, as library staff and trustees, is to remind “non-library users” how much benefit their local public library provides for such a small slice of the municipal tax levy pie. There are plenty of tax-supported services we pay for that we don’t personally utilize. Without getting embroiled too much in the politics of it all, I encourage everyone to think about libraries from a different perspective.
Libraries exist to serve everyone, and what we provide is available to all individuals and families without regard to income, perceived need, or any other criteria. Anyone can walk through our doors and research something of interest, use a computer, participate in a program, or relax with something to read. Libraries serve upper, middle, and working-class families! Our rules are minimal – treat the library and fellow users with respect, and maintain a library card in good standing if you wish to borrow materials outside of the library.
If you haven’t been in the library since childhood, now’s the time to return! Libraries have so much to offer, and many visitors are surprised at the changes we’ve made over the past few years. Even if you’re a library lover, take a few minutes and stop at a library you’ve never visited before and take a look around. Each library is unique in the books they purchase, in the programs they offer, and in the atmosphere they provide. I challenge everyone to visit the library this month – stop in and check us out!