Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Local Library and Ideological Purity

I'm a big patron of the Cincinnati Public Library. Their selection of books, films and sound recordings is exhaustive, their online catalogue is easy to browse, and best of all, it's almost free so long as I return materials on time. The library is also a great dividing line between pragmatic conservatives and ideological purists.

You see, the library is a publicly funded institution, and hard-line conservatives oppose all public institutions that provide services that a private market could supply. To a great extent, I recognize the inefficiency of public institutions and entitlements and the culture of dependency that they sometimes create. Moreover, it's obvious to me that the private sector could provide most of the services of a public library (see: Netflix). And yet, I still like the library.

Though it's publicly funded, it's still pretty cheap; last year's library levy increased local sales tax by a fraction of a cent. Moreover, it actually does what it was designed to do, providing wide access to books and media to patrons of all socio-economic backgrounds. It's also locally controlled; library funding is approved by the people who will actually use it.

What would be the advantages of a privately funded media co-op that would replace the library? Perhaps greater efficiency, more focus on new titles, the ability for local residents to opt out of the system. To the negative, the huge waste of media and space that would accompany a dismantling of the public library system and the limits placed on access by the membership fees that such a system would necessitate. These considerations weighed, I still favor the public option.

At the point, I hope that readers speak a collective "Duh." I am glad that you too like the library. What I am trying to illustrate is the need for a paradigm shift in conservative thinking, away from a priori opposition to all public institutions, and toward a weighing of the relative costs of addressing needs publicly or privately. As conservatives, we will still be skeptical toward public solutions and decide against them more often than not and will be very cautious about creating new institutions, but we will still consider problems on a case-by-case basis, and we will recognize that the serious costs associated with dismantling public institutions, even if we would have opposed their creation in some ideal original social position.


  1. Efficiency is one thing, but what are your thoughts on the library's negative impact on movie and magazine sales (both for the content creators as well as the retailers of these things)? Is it right for a public entity to buy and loan them to 1,000s of people for free?

    If just 30 people per branch read a magazine -- perhaps a serious yet more or less struggling one such as National Review or The New Republic -- it would translate to 30 x $50/yr subscription x 40 branches in our city... that's $60,000/year.

    Also, should the standards be raised to distinguish between an inventory that stimulates public literacy and knowledge and that which doesn't? It's one thing to offer classical music, foreign music, and hard-to-find jazz, and critically-acclaimed movies like Saving Private Ryan. As for People magazine, GQ, Soprano's seasons 1 through 5, Deuce Bigelow, SAW III, Balls of Fury, I'm not sure that holds up.


  2. I think that you're probably seriously overestimating the impact of the library on sales figures. First, you're assuming that one person per day reads each magazine at each branch, a pretty high estimate, then assuming that each of those readers would purchase a subscription, which is doubtful. My guess is that the library's impact is a pittance compared to that of the internet. With respect to films, music and books, I think that the impact is probably even smaller, since people have to wait a long time to get the materials that they want, often months in the case of new materials, at which point they've often lost interest.

    I do think that the library circulates a lot of crap, but that codified standards about what constitutes crap are going to be impossible for librarians to apply to purchase decisions without reviewing every item individually. I also think that offering lower-culture stuff is the only way to get a lot of people to the library, where, hopefully, they'll be exposed to better things.

    The point is not to say that the library is
    a perfect institution, but that it's a counterexample to the libertarian mantra that all unnecessary public institutions are bad.

    Aside: C'mon, The Sopranos has ten times the artistic value of Saving Private Ryan.

  3. Publishers and movie-makers are more than happy to sell their stuff to libraries. Some have separate, higher rates (especially movies but also many periodicals). Others just sell to libraries at the same rate that they sell to the public. Based on experience, they believe that their stuff will be bought more, not less, if people can first borrow it. As in, "I got this movie from the library and loved it so much that I bought a copy so I could watch it whenever I want," or "I borrowed this book from the library and loved it, so I thought you'd like it too, so I bought it for your birthday gift."

    If you want to see the availability of not-so-popular fine arts material sharply decline, just eliminate public libraries. Commercial libraries will have no interest in providing access to stuff that most people don't want to use.

    On the whole, I find this description of conservatism to be genuinely conservative. Government entities are inefficient, but in some areas they are still more efficient than private entities.

  4. I concede with shame that I seriously overestimated the financial impact in the magazine example. I was trying to think in terms of how many people per branch might be interested in reading a single magazine title. 30 people within a branch's region of 10,000 or so seemed like a low # at first glance, but of course, you're right it's not possible for 30 people to share 1 copy of a magazine. Even if they were all resigned to read them 2 months late it would be unlikely.

    I agree with you too that I don't know what a library pays for the right to distribute the media, which would certainly affect the math.

    I will say in my defense that a. my household has canceled a handful of magazine subscriptions because they are available at the library, b. we've rented far fewer movies, and c. all the movie rental stores around me except one have closed (which is only to say that the industry needs all the help it can get, and that the conservatism in me does not heartily agree when a public entity assists in the death, however inevitable, of these store owners' enterprises). The FBI warnings that viewers get at the beginning of dvd's, the fees that restaurants pay to broadcast games and play music, the ways media companies target individuals who frequent piracy portals... all these in one way or another indicate the seriousness that artists, media houses, retailers, etc. take the use of their materials, even on a small scale (ie the individual). Given all this, it's not so obvious to me that thousands (or 10's of thousands) of public libraries in the US are mostly of no concern to the industries. I am a big fan of the library (even in spite of whatever inefficiencies it possesses) - I just wanted to suggest that it might be a problematic example for conservatives to hold up in these few areas.