Jessica Nunez and her family are just the kind of people who could benefit from well-financed physical libraries, paper books, the digital variety, loans of e-readers, and technical support along with old-fashioned inspiration from dedicated career-librarians.
“A lot of parents don’t have computers at home or they can’t afford ’em,” she told a TV interviewer in September after the besieged Miami-Dade library system won a temporary reprieve from massive cuts in hours and jobs.
Ms. Nunez herself is among the millions of cash-strapped Americans counting on public libraries to help them.
But will Miami-Dade come through for the Nunezes? That remains to be seen, as the public officials ponder how to deal with the library system’s $20-million budget deficit projected for the next fiscal year. One idea is to put bookstores in libraries. But how much will that help finance them? It’s a little like the library director in my own hometown, Alexandria, VA (bizarrely labeled “the most well-read city in the U.S.,” based on Amazon purchases and ignoring trifles such as less-than-stellar circulation figures for the library system), dreaming of making serious money from Amazon-related affiliate fees.
Here’s a more efficacious remedy for Miami-Dade. Get your priorities straight. The county’s current operating budget is $4.4 billion, so the $20 million is a grain of sand in the grand scheme of things. It doesn’t help that the government has reduced the library millage rate, creating an artificial fiscal crisis. Meanwhile, as noted by Elaine de Valle (“a.k.a. ‘Ladra’”), a former Miami Herald reporter, writing in a different context, Miami-Dade officials have voted to give away $3 million in “marketing incentives” to bring cruise passengers to Miami. Huh? Isn’t that what Norwegian Cruise Line would do naturally? Perhaps even more significantly, Ladra has raised questions about the county’s oft-costly fondness for outsourcing contracts. Any possible corruption, any possible quid pro quos between political donors and public officials, would be in the best local and state traditions.
In a smarter world, Miami-Dade would respond rationally to library needs vs. those of cruise-line shareholders and local government contractors. But dream on. More than a few citizens feel overtaxed as it is, and a new poll warns that while they love their libraries, only 44 percent of respondents would go along with a tax increase and 20 percent are undecided. Hmm. Increase? In the case of the library millage rate, we’re talking about restoration to an earlier, more realistic level. It is now .17 compared to .35 in 2000-2001 and .96 in 1988-1989 (library construction financing?). Meanwhile, as the Miami Herald’s Patricia Mazzei astutely reported, the mixed message about taxes jibes with a recent Pew poll showing strong current support of libraries, but warning of future threats. LibraryCity reached similar conclusions. So did Publishers Weekly.
But how about local donations in Miami-Dade to make up for public funding shortages, aggravated by the state of Florida’s cutbacks in library aid? Forget it. “Between Nov. 1 and Dec. 4,” Ms. Mazzei says of an effort to collect them via envelopes set out with tax bills, “the library had received 247 donations totaling $6,573.49. The library budget: about $50 million.”
Granted, not every city, county or state is frittering away money for purposes like cruise line subsidies. Countless governments are truly, truly frugal, as opposed to caving into well-connected business people keen on sticking their snouts into the public trough; and I salute the many honest politicians who are in fact friends of libraries.
But whatever the reason, America’s public libraries in fiscal year 2010 could spend just $4.22 per capita on paper and digital books books and other kinds of content, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Libraries can respond in several ways, starting with advocacy aimed at politicians and others controlling their budgets. More focus on e-books and other digital content, along with laws to discourage price gouging by publishers, would help as well. E is the most efficient way to distribute items, while also opening up new possibilities in areas such as interactivity and book-to-book linking. Many patrons now demanding paper books would be willing to try e-books in a serious way if the hardware and tech support were available to the extent they are in Bexar County, Texas, another heavily Hispanic locality with many low-income people. Bexar has made hundreds and hundreds of loanable e-readers available, along with friendly guidance from young, gung-ho staffers. E-book-capable gadgets are like hearing aids: we need to consider the needs of different users and help them befriend the technology. Let’s give the underfunded libraries of Miami all the resources they require to build on their existing digital efforts. Of course, libraries are about much more than books, as LibraryCity keeps emphasizing. But they are their main calling card, and with shrunken collections, libraries could lose some support among voters expecting enough back in return for their taxes. Miami’s per capita spending on library content, in all formats, is less than half the national average.
Yes, in the end, it all boils down to money. Because the super-rich own so much of America and because the wealth of the rest of the country has failed to keep pace, shouldn’t the interested billionaires finance a publicly run national digital library endowment? Fairness demands that. I use the P word deliberately, since a publicly run endowment would be more transparent and more responsive than alternatives. The endowment would be far, far from a full solution to America’s library crisis, but it could do a lot more good more than bookstores in libraries, even though I’m certainly game on libraries trying the store route as well, especially if private bookstores aren’t nearby. Every little bit helps. But just ask private bookstores about their own profit margins,
The fiscal woes of the Miami-Dade libraries are not likely to go away soon, alas, given the near-sightedness of Mayor Carlos Gimenez and his powerful allies; and the same can be said of countless other libraries victimized by myopic local governments. Jessica Nunez shouldn’t have to wait. How can we not create both the endowment and intertwined public and academic library systems online to respond better to America’s library needs?
Related: A 2020 scenario for digital libraries—starring the hypothetical Hernandez family in Bexar County. Also see Family Literacy and K-12 success: How a well-stocked public e-system for the U.S. could help our students catch up with ‘The Smartest Kids in the World.’ And speaking of the possibilities of e-books and the demand for them, check out a Web post from Philadelphia magazine reporting stricter limits on e-book borrowing due to heavy demand. A Pew survey conducted in 2012 found that that 53 percent of Americans “definitely” want public libraries to “offer more e-books.” Time to speak out! Also see the Save the Miami-Dade Public Libraries page on Facebook.