Is your local library budget about to be slashed? Here’s an example of how you can fight back

This letter has gone to Mayor William Euille (photo below, contact information here for him and other top officials) in Alexandria, VA, the town that Amazon inaccurately depicted as America’s book city #1. Also see a local Friends group’s talking points for library advocates—and the other side: a city staff memo saying the library board can avoid a reduction in library hours. – D.R. (updated 11:25 p.m.)

william euille

Even in cold-blooded business terms, the proposed library cuts in Alexandria don’t make sense—neither the trimmed hours nor the stinginess toward paper books, e-books and other items

What’s the better scenario for the taxpayers in the end? Alexandrians on welfare (or drawing the minimum wage)? Or motivated citizens given a decent chance to upgrade their reading and other skills during hours convenient to working people?

In a city with a proposed $626-million budget and an abundance of $1-million-plus houses containing 50-inch flat-screen televisions and pricey Colonial-era antiques, the slashing of some $150,000 from the people and books budgets would hardly be a wise route to fiscal sanity. I’ll offer a better solution, a library-linked real estate surtax limited to the citizens who can truly afford it.

Doubt the need? The Alexandria Library’s per capita budget for books and other content was just $3.25 for the 2012 fiscal year, less than the cost of a Big Mac hamburger. My sympathy goes out to the library’s director, Rose Dawson (yes, same as the Titanic heroine), who I’m confident is trying to do her best with the resources available. The $3.25 is less than the $4.22-per-capita spending for America’s libraries as a whole in FY 2010, per statistics from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, as well as the $3.77 Virginia average. Alas, the misguided economizing makes a mockery of Amazon’s ranking of Alexandria as America’s “most well-read” city of more than 100,000. This in a city where most of the high school students qualify for school lunches and, as I’ve noted on the LibraryCity.org site, aren’t exactly raised by Dickens-and-Austen-loving parents! While I favor the creation of a national digital library endowment (http://librarycity.org/?p=6933), it would be no replacement for robust local support of public libraries here or elsewhere.

Want proof that Alexandria is embarrassingly behind? See Table 23 at the Web address of http://www.imls.gov/assets/1/AssetManager/FY2010_PLS_Tables_19-29A.pdf.

Instead of shortchanging K-12 students and other library users of books, our city could reap plaudits in the national media, by dramatically boosting the materials budget so we surpassed rather than lagged the state and national averages. We’re a well-to-do Washington suburb—at least in terms of mean income, skewed upward by our multimillionaire residents—rather than rural Mississippi. Let’s give the budget story a newsworthy twist, a happy ending, so the Amazon ballyhoo is a little closer to reality.

I’ve just emailed a Washington Post editor about our city’s current miserliness toward the Alexandria Library, in regard to both the proposed hours of operation and the purchase of new books, and I have also written about it myself on the LibraryCity.org site at http://librarycity.org/?p=7443. May the city administration respond in a helpful way! I know that City Manager Rashad Young’s heart is in the right place; I’m aware of his membership on the executive board of the Urban Libraries Council (http://www.urbanlibraries.org/2012-2013-executive-board-pages-66.php). The council exists to strengthen and promote “the value of libraries as essential public assets.” I am certain that Mr. Young is dismayed by the tough choices, so, to reduce the unpleasantness, here are some some friendly suggestions for him and other city officials, especially council members who will vote on the budget.

Short-term, please find other ways to save money; and if need be increase the city’s debt, since the amount would be tiny in the grand scheme of things. Long term, as a partial source of funds for our library, Alexandria should at least slightly raise the real estate taxes on houses in the very upper range. We need a special library surtax in those instances, given the importance of libraries to young people, seniors and other Alexandrians. If any of the wealthy object, we’ll all know what this is about: the hyper-privileged versus those reliant on the Alexandria Library as a life-improver. Fight this out in the Virginia legislature, with national publicity, if state legal obstacles exist (update, 11:25 p.m.: Councilman Justin Wilson says they indeed do). Encourage other localities throughout the country to create similar surtaxes.

Actually, the “versus” isn’t quite the word to use in many cases when discussing the wealthy and the rest of us in the United States. Guess who, along with the workers themselves, benefits from the upgraded skills? Why, the American business owner, of course—both large and small. That includes shareholders. Recent technological developments, such as 3D printing, as well as worries about increased transportation costs, could bring home a lot of business from China, at least if we’re prepared. Well-financed public libraries can result in smarter workers able to pay earn more and pay more taxes.

I’m certain that the most enlightened of our wealthy citizens would gladly shell out a little extra, remembering that Andrew Carnegie, not a social worker, not a teacher, not a librarian, but an industrialist, is regarded by many as the patron saint of the the library world. At the same time Carnegie, while spending millions on several thousand library buildings in the U.S., his native Scotland and nations as remote as Mauritus and Fiji, expected cities to stock the stacks adequately and pay other operating expenditures. Let Alexandria not be Scrooge.

Just an aside: I really, really like the official Alexandria Web site, which is rich in information and, yes, includes a budget forum where citizens can discuss the proposed library cuts.

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