Saturday, April 30, 2005

Defending the free public library

Last week I asked my branch managers to keep an informal tally of library users and the materials they borrow. The goal was to illustrate that majority of the people who come to the library borrow AV items such as videos, CDs and audio books in addition to traditional print media.

Why tally who borrows what kinds of library materials? Last week the Ohio House passed its version of the State budget. Rep. William Sietz (R-Cincinnati) is credited with authoring a short addition of “permissive language” that enables public libraries to charge rental fees for services and materials with the exception of print materials.

During discussions in the House just prior to the vote Rep. Seitz told his colleagues that “his” library had bought 115 copies of the popular video Spiderman II. For most libraries 115 copies of anything would be a lot, but Rep. Seitz may not realize that “his” library is the 10th most used library in America, with 42 locations serving over 800,000 citizens in Cincinnati and Hamilton County. Anyone can do the simple math that 115 copies equate to roughly two or three copies per branch.

A quick call to my neighborhood Blockbuster Video outlet puts those numbers in the proper perspective. The manager told me that her location bought 120 copies of the video for just her one location! To suggest that libraries attempt to compete with video rental outlets is a real stretch of the imagination.

The Dayton Metro Library often buys two or three copies per location for many titles -- books and videos alike. Still, buying 50 copies of the most popular titles never comes close to meeting the immediate demands of our library patrons.

A recently title, the Notebook based on a novel by Nicolas Sparks, is a great example about how libraries integrate different media in their collections. The novel first published in 1996 is a wonderful set of stories, remembrances of a couple now confined to a nursing home. The Dayton Metro Library still has 30 copies of the original book. We have an additional 7 copies in large print editions and 16 more copies in audio books on tape and audio CD formats.

We bought 53 copies of the film version after its release to video earlier this year. The last time I checked we had over 300 patrons waiting for a copy to borrow. Remember, this is just a list of people who took the time to sign up for a reserve. That doesn’t include the thousands of patrons who would borrow it if it were sitting on the shelves during their next visit.

Blockbuster Video has nothing to worry about even if the Seitz’s language stays in the bill. However, public libraries have a lot to worry about. It is well known in legislative circles that when “permissive” language is placed into law, failure to follow the legislative lead will be used as fodder when the budget cycle comes around the next time.

Why don’t libraries charge for videos? I was at a recent state-wide meeting of librarians. I heard them trade a long list of financial and practical reasons, such as, libraries would have to spend money on more sophisticated cash registers to calculate sales tax and perhaps they’ll need to start paying the new “CAT” tax when enacted. One librarian noted that rental income at libraries that charge rental fees is less than overdue fine revenues at libraries that lend them for free. Some suggest that renting non-print media would violate Ohio law in other ways, such as provisions that prohibit government agencies from competing with commercial entities.

But it is the threat to the core definition of the free public library and the values librarians uphold that dominated our discussions. Surely, public libraries respond to popular demand, but they also maintain a balance taking into consideration more than just what “sells” today. Public libraries welcome all, not just those who can pay.

Libraries can’t make up for the additional cuts with rental income. But if they wanted to try, they wouldn’t by be buying children’s videos and self-help or foreign languages instructions series. Would voters support library levies if they are seen as a profit making operation? Would patrons question the motivations of their librarian when a video is recommended to them? I heard stirring defenses of the free public library.

But it is the comments we’ve received from patrons that steel my conviction that public libraries must remain free. Hundred’s of library patrons have logged messages at our web site recently expressing their opinions about the current budget. Many have written eloquent and forceful commentary, such as the following message written by Shirley from Beavercreek:

Free libraries have become the cornerstone of our democracy, enabling common citizen access to all kinds of media. Knowledge ceased to be conveyed solely through books many years ago. To charge for the use of electronic media is to cut off those in the population most in need of access to these materials. For example, VCR tapes are not just entertainment. There are also tapes on history, self-improvement, and a wealth of other topics. Educators among others count on having free access to these materials to allow them to expand their students' world beyond the limitations of their schools' collection of media. To attempt to "balance" the state budget on the backs of the libraries and their patrons is heinous.

Shirley understands. She is a typical library patron. I also heard back from my managers sharing with me their tally of over 1700 patrons during a day or two in the past week. They reported that 55% borrowed a combination of printed materials and AV items or solely AV items. This is not surprising. It confirms what librarians around the country know, our world of knowledge and information is becoming increasingly multi-media and format independent. Video and Internet sources are equally important in filling the research, educational and recreational needs of library patrons.

I did a little further analysis of the results. Looking at the economically distressed areas of our community, I found that the percentage who borrowed AV items increase to 60%. As with consumption taxes, the impact of rental fees will be felt the most by the poor. Rep. Seitz may not have targeted those least able to rent, but the impact is undeniable.

Over 10,000 people per day visit a Dayton Metro Library location. Similar to other public libraries, AV materials represent 40% of our circulation but represents only 25% of our materials budget and only 3.8% of our total expenditures. Over 2.5 million AV items were circulated in 2004. AV materials are a core part of today’s public library. To suggest otherwise reminds me of the bias against paperback books 50 years ago.

During Nation Library Week each year, the Dayton Metro Library invites elected officials, including our State Representatives, to “be a librarian for a day” and spend some working the desk with our staff meeting patrons and seeing first hand the value public libraries represent in our communities. Rep. Seitz would benefit from a similar experience.


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