Public Comment

Re-Thinking the Idea of Free Libraries

By Peter Klatt
Thursday September 18, 2008 - 09:34:00 AM

I read Barbara Gilbert’s commentary (Sept. 11) with great interest and I second her opinions wholeheartedly. 

I would like to expand on Ms. Gilbert’s comments specifically with respect to the Library Bond measure FF. I concluded some years ago that the public libraries should to a significant degree, become user-funded, as are so other many city, county and state services. While the city has managed to spin off much of the library budget from the city core budget onto the property taxpayers, the actual users of libraries get off scot free, which is most irritating, especially in view of the fact that “half of the library usage is by non-Berkeley residents.” 

The concept of free public libraries once made sense as a means to help achieve general literacy and provide information to a wide spectrum of citizens (of course that information was mostly ink on paper a century ago.) However, since the days of Andrew Carnegie, the need for free public libraries to promote literacy has greatly diminished. Like the Correctional Peace Officer’s Union, the library establishment and its lobby have always sought ways to expand their mission and enlarge their budgets, even to go to the absurdity of creating a Tool Lending Library at a time when most people (who wanted to) could already read, even though they may not have owned a hammer or a screwdriver. That said, I must admit that I have used the tool “library” a couple of times, because it was convenient and I was being cheap, but I felt justified in view of the large library tax that appears on my annual property tax bill. 

I pay nearly as much for those darn “free” libraries as I do for public schools and that is not right! This is the 21st century. People can and do get most of their desired information via the Internet from Google and Wikipedia and a jillion other places. In a way, free public libraries are just as obsolete as Cody’s or Black Oak book stores. These old media purveyors have either disappeared from the scene or are hanging on by their teeth. Books and the ability to read are no longer a necessary public goal. That erstwhile goal has been achieved, but still the free public library establishment demands increasingly larger budgets from rate payers. 

Reading books can be a cultural life-enhancement, perhaps entertainment, but it is not a pursuit that should be fully tax supported. Some may consider this heresy, but I think it is high time that library users step up to the plate and share in the cost of this public service. The annual fees for library cards should have a multi-tier structure: for example, Berkeley youth, adult Berkeley residents, all non-residents and perhaps resident seniors and/or disabled or low-income, etc. But the fees should be significant enough to make a significant budget impact after the cost of implementation and collection. Keeping in mind that just a movie ticket can set one back the better part of a $20 bill. 

Modern computerized library management systems can be programmed to achieve such an objective. If the imposition of such fees should happen to also curtail the number of users, then a case can be made to downsize, re-organize and even shut down the system of branch libraries and to reduce library staff. Heresy? I think not. It is simply time to face reality, just as the Postal Service is addressing its own reality. There is no longer a mail drop at every street corner and there is talk about going to a five-day delivery from six. And guess what? Postage rates escalate all the time. But the public libraries are free! 

Don’t get me wrong. I am an avid reader. I love books. I buy books. I keep books in my library. I borrow books from friends and I lend books to friends. I also love music, which deserves every bit—or more—ratepayer support than libraries do. Music in our schools not only develops cultural appreciation and beauty but music also stimulates learning ability in young students. But our school music budgets are minuscule, almost non-existent. Can we have some equity there, please? But let’s not perpetuate the free library thing any longer. Enough is enough! 

Peter Klatt has been a Berkeley resident since 1956.