Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Value of Libraries

A recent Bangor Daily News articles highlights the economic, cultural, & educational value of libraries. The article can be linked to here: http://bangordailynews.com/detail/90917.html.

The most telling part of the article to me is the dollar value of the services at the library used by the author, Rosemary Herbert, during a recent visit to her library in Rockport. In that one visit to her library, Ms. Herbert determined the services provided & materials borrowed to have a value of $233. Without putting too much thought into whether this a tremendous bargain or not, I'm just going to assume that this is a tremendous bargain.

But ... I think I'll also put much thought into this as well.

The most recent annual report for the Bangor Public Library lists the average amount of tax revenue per Bangor resident toward the operating cost of the library at $48.42 per taxpayer.

Here are some figures & observations to mull over:

* A fair estimate for the cost of a home Internet connection through Time Warner, a leading Internet service provider in the area, is around $40 per month. $48.42 is roughly the cost of five to six weeks of a home Internet connection.

*An estimate of the average price for a new hardcover book is between $18 and $30, an average price for a new paperback is between $6 and $15. If you only read books you could buy, $48.42 would limit you only to two or three (new) books per year.

*Most magazine subscriptions for individuals run between $15 to $30 per year, with some specialized magazines costing much more. $48.42 would most likely limit a person to only two subscriptions per year, meaning you'd have to choose between Time or Newsweek (or The Economist or The New York Review of Books) if you also already subscribe to Down East Magazine.

*Most books on CD & cassette cost $30 or more each, while the Playaways offered at the library cost $40 to $60 each. $48.42 might not even be enough to buy one of these, depending on what & where you're buying.

*The databases available on Marvel!, Maine's Virtual Library, utilized by college students, business professionals, health care professionals, and the regular citizen cost the state about seven million dollars per year. This averages out to between four & five dollars per taxpayer, a fair sum considering that many scientific, technical, and medical journals could charge an individual upwards of $40 for a single journal article download. Believe me, I've seen it -- though, fortunately, there are legal ways around being charged that amount whenever the situation has arisen.

*All libraries are heated in the winter & cooled in the summer, an expense not to be sneezed at with the current cost of energy resources. Plus, you know, libraries now have electricity for things like computers & lights & stuff. $48.42 is probably a good estimate for the dollar total of all the electricity currently being pumped into the room for the 29 computers in use right now in the room I'm sitting in.

*Bangor Public Library employs around forty full-time employees who work 37.5 hours per week, totaling around 1500 hours worked per week & around 78,000 hours worked per year. Your $48.42 provides perhaps a dollar a day for one day to each of the employees here. Another way to look at this is that $48.42 is less than minimum wage for one employee working 7.5 hours in one day.

*The library is open 60 hours a week from September to May, 48 hours per week June to August, with the library being open about 300 days &, bear with me, over 2900 hours per year. $48.42 equals about 15 cents per day the library is open for each taxpayer. If you a huge math fanatic, try dividing $48.42 into 2900 hours & you'll get 1.6 cents per hour.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have "ball park" figured some of the math here (including, occasionally for comic -- at least, intended on my part -- effect). And, in truth, local tax dollars do not account for all the revenue sources for the library. State tax dollars provide 5-10% of Bangor Public Library's revenue stream. Also, the library is very fortunate to have well-funded endowments & regular financial donations from many folks with generous spirits which almost exclusively fund our book collection.

For my money (ha + ha!), I'd say $48.42 per year is an incredible bargain. I worked part-time in the Albany, New York, public library system prior to coming to Bangor. In Albany, I believe the average tax burden for the library was just over $100 per taxpayer. And, that total has increased since voters agreed last year to fund renovation & new construction projects.

Of course, not every citizen of Bangor uses the library on a regular or irregular basis. Ten years after the construction of the new addition to the building, I occasionally help someone who notes with neither malice nor presumption that he/she "hasn't been in since the new part was added." At least ten years between visits to the library may beg that $48.42 is too much to pay.

But, I'll argue, the point is that we are here when anyone does need us. Last week, the library held a public forum to meet & hear the candidates for city council & the school committee speak. For many, this was the first & best & possibly only chance they had to better inform themselves about the upcoming local election. This very well attended forum may well have been the only time many folks visited us this year, but it highlights that at any given time our citizenry may call upon us to provide a valuable service or opportunity for them.

We are here & the graciousness of taxpayers & donors makes what we do possible. Your contributions, financial or otherwise, are a trust we hope to continue to honor whether you visit the library hundreds of times a year or not once. $48.42 is just a dollar figure; the real value of libraries isn't in what you pay but in what you & others can get from experiences & resources at the library.

Back in April, I visited the aquarium in Boston. I can't remember how much I paid for tickets for my wife, son & I. But I do remember how cool my son thought the penguins were & how scary he thought the octopus was. Okay, I'll be honest, it was me that found the octopus a little creepy.

My point is, that while, of course, there is certainly a dollar & cents reality to the library's operation, any true determination of a library's value can only exist in the minds of those who visit us. I would like to hope that more often than not that what we provide at Bangor Public Library is invaluable.

Let me know what you think.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for calling attention to my Bangor Daily News article about the value of public libraries. I am fascinated to learn even more about the incredible bargain that public libraries offer us, especially considering the very modest amount of tax dollars each household spends on this. Once again, while I am glad to learn about the monetary value of our libraries as resources in our lives, I would like to note that the friendly helpfulness of the librarians themselves is a treasure that is priceless.

Rosemary Herbert, Bangor Daily News "Notes from the Deep End" columnist

Bangor Public Library

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