March 16, 2010

A Conservative Approach to Libraries

Justin Katz

For a variety reasons, I've found the reported success of Providence branch libraries to be encouraging. As a writer and reader, I'm obviously invested in the written word. As a tangible spiritualist (if you will), I'm a fan of books, specifically. As a cultural conservative, community involvement is an appealing outcome. And as a libertarian-leaner on governmental and fiscal topics, I can't resist pointing out this:

"It was inspiring to see a group of dedicated volunteers work so hard," says Karen Mellor, library program manager for the state Office of Library and Information Services. "It's also remarkable what they accomplished in a short period of time." ...

With a $5 million budget — about $2.5 million less than what the public library had said it took to run the system — the community library has retained most of the old library staff and kept basic services and hours of operation intact. Years of budget cuts, though, have left the libraries with weak collections and old buildings in need of repair.

The funding is still public, but it's titularly municipal, which is fine by me. Community involvement can include a community decision that a library is worthy of public funds. Whatever the case, I hope the branch libraries succeed in their goal of revitalizing neighborhoods as local hubs.

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I am a lover of books, that said let's look at the situation.

The facts seem to be that the Internet is rapidly adding all of the knowledge that is available. This is unlikely to diminish in the foreseeable future. The various types of "electronic books" are increasing, and unlikely to diminish.

If the motive is a love of books, there is no substitute for a library. Still, it is worth noting that the Providence Athenaeum went broke. Also, most of the books that "only they have" do not circulate, so you have to find the time to sit there and read them.

If the motive is dispersal of knowledge, it would be cheaper to give away computers and establish a state wide Wi-Fi system. (Does anyone own an encyclopedia anymore?)

The latter seems like a good application of "stimulus" money.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at March 16, 2010 10:50 PM

Warrington, I am disappointed to see you advocating any "stimulus" spending by government. How does this not conflict with the consistent conservatism of your other comments?

Before forming an opinion on the Athaneum, I would need to research and analyze the story of why they went broke.

I find your comment, "finding the time to sit there and read them" interesting. Whether reading a paper document or an electronic one, I have to make time to sit with it and concentrate on it if the experience is to have any value. Perhaps reading while multitasking works for you - it doesn't for me. Now if we have to devote time to that book, does it matter where we do it? Doesn't that come down to a judgment about how much we value what is in that book? And if the value is there, is it a chore or a pleasure to sit with the actual book that because of rarity or condition cannot be circulated outside the library?

For some documents, there is an experience beyond the meaning of the words in connecting with the original - for example, seeing the actual Founding Documents at the National Archive.

Posted by: BobN at March 17, 2010 8:17 AM


Having accepted that the "Stimulus Money" exists, and will be spent, the only practical course for me is to attempt to find uses I prefer to subsidizing failed local governments.

Since all my knowledge on the Athenaeum's failure is second hand and anecdotal, I suggest that you do make your own investigation. I do know that they have received public subsidy for years and that they had to sell the most valuable books in their possession.

As to "finding the time to sit there and read them", I can only say that they are not around the corner from me. This has been made worse since their financial predicament has forced them to curtail their hours. If "the cause is not great", it can be difficult to find the time. Now, if "Chinese" Gordon's biography was on line, that would ease matters.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at March 17, 2010 9:32 AM

Better to repeal it and make clear that unconstitutional federal spending will no longer be tolerated.

Posted by: BobN at March 17, 2010 12:16 PM

"Better to repeal it and make clear that unconstitutional federal spending will no longer be tolerated."

True, but repeal just isn't in the cards. Our only recourse, to my mind, is to see that the money goes somewhere it may do some good and then "throw the bums out".

Posted by: Warrington Faust at March 17, 2010 2:20 PM
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