WANNA GET ANGRY about something else? Think about how the state treats our libraries… like losers. Sure, some politicians find funds to help local libraries. But at budget time, library services take disproportionately big hits from Albany.
That happens because politically speaking libraries and the systems that support them have as much clout as a flea on an elephant. Unlike schools and healthcare, all the public libraries in the state don’t spend enough money to make politicians nervous, and libraries can’t make office seekers drool by dangling suitcases full of campaign cash in front of them as Election Day nears. Libraries can’t even get the public to pay attention to their needs much of the time.
But here’s a reason for voters in the Towns of Kinderhook and Stuyvesant to focus on library service. The Kinderhook Memorial Library, which has a charter to serve both towns, is asking voters to increase the library’s budget. Why does the library need a bigger budget? For one thing, state cuts to the Mid-Hudson Library System, which provides essential services to the Kinderhook library, mean the system will have to triple what it charges for some of those services. The other 10 public libraries in the county face much the same dilemma.
Kinderhook library supporters collected enough signatures this year to put a proposition on the ballot in each town; in Kinderhook the referendum asks for approval of an additional $37,000, in Stuyvesant, $5,000. You can’t sugarcoat the facts and, unlike campaigns for office, nobody is trying. The library seeks to increase its operating budget by over 20%.
Voters in this state have only a few opportunities to determine how much of our tax money public entities spend. So library referendums like these are as close to the ground as democracy gets. They give voters a lot of power. They also put a big responsibility on voters’ shoulders. You can blame politicians for creating the need to vote, but you can’t blame them for the outcome.
Kinderhook and Stuyvesant voters might want to keep a couple of things in mind about the library propositions. First, everybody can use the library whenever the doors are open, and even when they’re closed, because you can reserve materials online. If you want to take home a book or CD or some other material, all you need is a card, which doesn’t cost you anything extra. You’re a taxpayer; you’ve already paid for it. And you can exchange whatever you get from the library for something you might like better? Can you name any other publicly funded service where you get a deal like that?
Maybe you’re not one of the nearly 40,000 visitors the library had last year. Maybe you never use the library. Maybe you’d just like to know how the library spends your money. Walk right in the front door and look around, ask questions. And if library staff members ask if you need help, they’re not hinting you should leave; they mean it.
If you pay taxes, you already know library services aren’t free. In Kinderhook the cost of keeping up with demand means figuring out how to handle more reference transactions last year than any other library in the county. To cope with rising expenses, the library board wants you to set tax rate for the library 3 ½ cents higher for each $1,000 of assessed value. In Stuyvesant, the rate would go up by slightly over 2 cents per $1,000.
How about an alternative? A private equity firm in Boston is bankrolling a company that makes a profit running public libraries. Perhaps private enterprise could function more efficiently. But what happens when the company needs a bigger profit margin? Would shifty hedge fund managers bundle your library fines and sell them the way they peddled bad mortgages? Would it surprise you if a for-profit library company sold your name, address and borrowing preferences to the highest bidder without telling you?
Maybe policymakers and voters ought to change the way they think about libraries. What if we didn’t worry so much about banks and Wall Street trading firms, and instead considered libraries too big to fail? Not actually too big. Just too important.
The Kinderhook Memorial Library is worth the investment. It yields huge dividends to the community. Kinderhook and Stuyvesant voters should look on the back of their ballot November 2 and vote Yes on the library proposition.