Monday, April 18, 2011

Reading Between the Lines

Alice Laffin ran her rough hand lovingly over the glossy jacket on a new poetry book before sneaking a quick peek inside when nobody was looking. It was like sampling the green grapes at the grocery store. She couldn’t afford to buy a whole bunch, but every once in awhile when she craved a taste she would eat one that was rolling around loose on the green mesh.

She used to enjoy her visits to the public library so much; the endless choices and feeling of ownership empowered her. Alice sighed as she slid the volume back onto the shelf. It was too thin and would never last until her next visit. She had only enough credits for two more books on the precious library debit card purchased with Christmas money from her daughter. This day she would select the fattest short story anthology she could find, and then pretend each story was a separate title like the stacks of books she used to borrow.

It was those jokers at the state capitol, her brother Herb said; they did it. First they took all the sales tax money away from the cities and towns to fill the big budget hole they dug for themselves. Then they cut the shared revenue dollars that were supposed to come back for roads and municipal services.

That happened the same year that local governments were no longer required by law to maintain library support at a three year average. Alice wanted to stopper her ears when her brother got on his soapbox.

“Then everything really got screwed up,” Herb railed to anyone who would listen. “The gollywhoppers didn’t stop to think that the averaging funding thing was the glue that held the counties and towns together in cooperatives.”

Alice remembered the cooperatives. They were called “systems” and used to run the inter-library loan service and computer catalogs. Once the government councils realized they weren’t obligated to support their local library and tried mooching off neighboring communities, the whole thing went to pot. Nobody wanted to share anymore. Soon the only books Alice could borrow were the ones in her own library. There wasn’t any money for new books because each library now had to buy its own checkout and catalog system or go back to the cards in drawers.

Things got worse. When too many libraries closed and the rest were about to completely fall off the tailgate of the pickup truck of local budget priorities, Herb’s jokers changed public library law to replace “free” with “fee.” Permissive legislation they called it. Creating a new revenue stream. You don’t have to charge, they said. Though library boards resisted at first, most soon had no alternative.

Herb used to stroll to his village library and borrow books from all over the state on interlibrary loan, but it was too small to produce enough transactions to be cost effective and closed. People got a better deal at the big city library, but gas was over $6 a gallon now and the roads were terrible.

“You’re lucky you still have a library,” Herb said, “even if homeowners pay twice.”

Alice knew the remaining librarians were uncomfortable with the fees. Debit cards discounted the $3.00 flat rate per item paid by borrowers with minimum privileges. Permanent library cards carried a variable annual fee depending upon which service plan was selected. Only a lucky few could afford an unlimited family card.

Sometimes they offered coupon specials. Borrow one and get one free. Receive one children’s program pass with the rental of ten picture books. Swap a used paperback in good condition for 30 free minutes of computer time.

Alice wondered about low-income families with young children. Were students whose parents couldn’t afford a home computer or were otherwise unable to buy their information getting poorer grades? What about folks needing new job skills, consumer information or how-to books?

She had noticed the librarians were now stocking what “sold” instead of more expensive art history books and other items that appealed to the tastes of fewer borrowers. Soon the public library would no longer be a repository of all points of view. Was that what the government intended?

Happy Monday after National Library Week!

The genesis of that grim little parable you just read was a piece originally written 9 years ago when the threat to free library access was very real.

In the wee hours of March 15, 2002, the Wisconsin Assembly passed its version of the Budget Reform Bill on a 51 to 48 vote. Included was this provision: "Repeal the current law requirement that municipal libraries, consolidated county libraries and county library services shall be free for the use of inhabitants of the municipality or county by which it is established and maintained, subject to reasonable regulations prescribed by the library's board."

That effort to scuttle Wisconsin’s 1872 free public library law failed to find support on the Senate floor. Striking the onerous provision was among the first things agreed upon by the conference committee hammering out a budget reform package. Legislators were undoubtedly influenced by a deluge of outraged citizen letters from all corners of the state.

The “free” in free public libraries isn’t about cost, but about free and equal access to information regardless of income or location. While the means by which each public library realizes its annual operating budget is complex, shared community investment in what Andrew Carnegie called “the people’s university” allows everyone to take equal advantage of the service.

And 17 cooperative public library systems throughout Wisconsin efficiently share resources across municipal and county borders, as they have since they were created by the legislature in 1971.

Our governor and legislators are once again considering a budget bill which includes major reductions in shared revenue to municipalities, decreases in road aids, 10% cuts to state library aids and – most alarming – actual elimination of the three year average maintenance of effort for participation in a public library system. Librarians think of this funding requirement as Maintenance of Membership Support (or MOMS).

Eliminating MOMS opens the door to unintended consequences. Some libraries could be defunded to the point of closure. Others would become substandard orphans whose borrowers are restricted to only what’s on the shelves within their four walls. Public library system compliance would be thrown into chaos. And drawers filled with 3X5 cards could make a comeback as shared automated catalogs become unsustainable.

The “free” in free public libraries is all about freedom and must not be taken for granted.


  1. Maxine D. PetersonMay 11, 2011 at 4:24 PM

    Public libraries are such an asset to their communities. It took many years for the library service to evolve into what it is today. At an earlier time only the wealthiest of people could use a library. Scholars were persons of great privelege. Today, anyone can use a public library making it an informational, educational, and pleasure reading past time. From early reading experiences to adult educational programs, no one in the community is left out. I can't imagine it any other way.
    We must never become so complacent that it ever be allowed to change for the worst. Change is good only if it benefits everyone.

  2. this is a grim tale and one that causes my stomach to quiver ever so slightly. I'm not sure what is more reprehensible in a future world like this-the loss of access to information, technology and entertainment (plus a sense of community) or libraries churning what's most popular to keep that sort of pay-as-you-read scenario afloat.