How can anyone hate a library?
For generations, my ancestors were lead miners in Wanlockhead, Scotland, which makes me proud. In addition to being the highest village in Scotland at 1,531 feet above sea level, Wanlockhead is the home of the second-oldest subscription library in Europe. (The first was in neighboring Leadhills, another mining town.) Today, the Miners’ Library, formed by 32 miners in 1756, is part of the Wanlockhead Museum of Lead Mining.
In 2007 it was recognized as a collection of national significance by the Scottish Museum Council. During its years of active service to the community, it provided a route out of the mines for a lucky few of the miners’ children, and an escape from the daily grind of the brutal work below ground for the miners and their families.
Subscribing to the library wasn’t cheap, but many (including my ancestors) did it anyway, knowing even then that literacy and education were essential steps on the ladder to success.
Twenty years earlier, Benjamin Franklin had begun the first subscription library in Philadelphia. It became known as the Library Company and the 50 members were all men of wealth. Today in America (as in Scotland), we rely on our tax dollars to provide us with access to local public libraries. And according to a Pew Research survey, most of us feel that they are important to our communities.
Only six percent of people surveyed think that closing the local public library would have no impact on the local community. Within that tiny minority, you will probably find the staggeringly rich and very powerful Koch brothers.
Plainfield, Illinois, a village 35 miles southwest of Chicago, is home to about 40,000 people. In the 20 years between 1990 and 2010, its population jumped from 4,557 to 39,581. In March of this year, the Plainfield Public Library District asked the community for approval of a $39 million bond for the construction of a new, larger library facility. Although the actual cost to the owner of a $300,000 house would have been $178.98 a year over the life of the 20-year bond, it is likely that the amount would drop over time as new development increased the tax base.
The median income of the village is $108,928; the median home value is $295,300. These are not poor people. And perhaps that is why the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity decided to target this community. Robocalls flooded the area, making false claims in an effort to defeat the bond issue.
It worked. And on March 15, the bond measure was defeated. As a result, the library will have to cut services and programs by about 20 percent in order to maintain the existing structure.
In Kansas they appear to be using the legislature to cut off funding for libraries in the state. Americans for Prosperity’s lobbyist was the only one present to speak in favor of HB 2719 during the March 14 public hearing on the bill in Topeka.
The bill does not directly cut off funding. Instead, it makes it mandatory to refer all changes in property taxes or bond issues which support libraries to an elected body or a public vote. Matt Nojonen, director of the Leavenworth Public Library, was at the hearing.
“This bill will manage to do with a stroke of a pen what years of a bad economy failed to do,” Nojonen said. “Force a local tax increase or force cuts so deep that the first public library in the first city in the state of Kansas, an institution proudly supported by its community since 1899, will become a sad shadow of itself.”
Gina Millsap, representing the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, said requiring the Topeka City Council or Shawnee County Commission to wade into library tax and bond issues would be “illogical and inefficient.”
According to Democratic state Rep. Tom Sawyer, who sits on the Committee on Taxation that introduced HB2719:
the bill would require an annual vote on regional libraries budgets and if the people vote down the budget, the library would go away; Sawyer says there is no other entity in the state that would require a vote on a budget like libraries under the bill.
Sawyer says that it seems like the bill is going after regional libraries and trying to get them to shut down.
The latest news from the office of the Speaker Pro Tem indicates that the bill may not make it out of committee during this legislative year. That does not mean that it won’t, or that a similar bill won’t be introduced later—or even worse, that American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) won’t be able to polish up the language, obfuscate its intent, and reintroduce it in other red states whose citizens are subject to the whims of governors like Scott Walker or Rick Snyder.
My small hometown has a branch of our county library system, and on any hot summer day the air-conditioned reading room is often filled with seniors who cannot afford the high price of electricity to cool their homes. Children will sit in a semi-circle to hear the librarian read a book to them, just like those in the picture above. Students can be found at computer work stations, some reading emails, most doing school research projects. Folks will be browsing the fiction aisles, or learning how to use the system’s digital e-book software. Our library isn’t just valued by our community: It is essential.
The Pew Research study in America showed a slight drop in physical visits to the libraries (46 percent in 2015, down from 53 percent in 2012), and an increase in visits to the websites of libraries via a mobile device (50 percent in 2015, up from 39 percent in 2012). Although Pew hesitates to report any trend on the basis of three years of data, it is clear that we are changing the way we use our local libraries. As shown in the chart below, support for moving books out and creating more space for reading rooms, meeting spaces, and tech centers is growing.
The Koch brothers are probably unaware of the nefarious use that some of us put our local libraries to, but we pesky activists who work to address community problems and try to influence government are more likely to use libraries, by a significant margin, over those who don’t.
It is doubtful, however, that that is why those behind Americans for Prosperity want to close our libraries. More likely possibilities include the privatization of our library system, resulting in even more public funding finding its way into the pockets of the already wealthy. Or perhaps they just want to slash one more public benefit to increase the taxpayer-funded corporate welfare programs without running into budget deficits.
Regardless of the reasoning, the people most hurt by libraries closing will, as usual, be those who can least afford it. Almost half of all surveyed by Pew indicated that libraries help people find jobs. But when you look at those in households with incomes of less than $30,000, that percentage increases to 53 percent. Among African Americans it’s 55 percent, and among Latinos it is 58 percent.
Our communities need our public libraries. Our tax dollars should be used to increase the literacy and knowledge of our community members as stepping stones in their journey to a better life—just as surely as my ancestors library subscription fees did a few hundred years ago.