The most important local infrastructure you will ever build is in your own mind. Invest in mental resources, character, and knowledge for benefits that last as long as you do. When the nineteenth century industrialist Andrew Carnegie, the world’s richest man at the time, looked for what he could give back that would most benefit others, he helped towns and cities establish public libraries. Recently, Bill Gates established a foundation tasked with finding and funding the greatest benefits to society. His methods so impressed Warren Buffet that Buffet turned over much of his own philanthropy to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Again, Gates’ researchers recognized a huge cost-benefit payoff in supporting public libraries.
About six years ago, Salinas County, California almost became the first city in the United States to close its public libraries. They were facing an economic downturn and an unusually low per capita tax base requiring that they cut back on services. The public and private outcry was so great, that the Mayor who proposed the cut ended up leading the campaign to fund them. In November of 2005, voters there approved tax increases funding several vital but very inexpensive services including the libraries, three recreation centers, school crossing guards, and graffiti abatement. All four provided a supportive environment for children to grow at a very low cost. In 2008, Salinas County officials had so changed their minds about the value of libraries that they funded library service seven days a week. They found, as one day our community will as well, that the opportunities you provide your citizens to prosper both mentally and physically are cheaper by far than the sterile alternative. The low costs of educational, job, and health wellness services greatly reduce the huge costs of medical care, crime, poor education, and disaffection from the community.
Last May, The Institute for Museum & Library Services and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded a comprehensive national survey to determine if the wide availability of the Internet in homes and offices had reduced the benefit of public libraries. Earlier studies had provided anecdotal evidence that there was no negative effect on library use, but this hardly seemed possible to the relatively well-educated adults who had paid Internet service in the home and had finished their education years before. The new study included direct monitoring of computer use in our library branches and in 400 other library systems across the country as well as statistically reliable surveys of over 20,000 individuals nationwide.
The new study confirmed that over the past 12 months:
- 40 percent of library computer users (an
estimated 30 million people) received help with career needs. Among these
users, 75 percent reported they searched for a job online. Half of these
users filled out an online application or submitted a resume.
- 37 percent focused on health issues. The vast majority of these users (82 percent) logged on to learn about a disease, illness, or medical condition. One-third of these users sought out doctors or health care providers. Of these, about half followed up by making appointments for care.
- 42 percent received help with educational needs. Among these users, 37 percent (an estimated 12 million students) used their local library computer to do homework for a class.
- Library computers linked patrons to
their government, communities, and civic organizations. Sixty-percent of
users – 43.3 million people – used a library’s computer resources to
connect with others.
Marsha Semmel, acting director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, noted: “There is no ambiguity in these numbers. Millions of people see libraries as an essential tool to connect them to information, knowledge, and opportunities. Policy makers must fully recognize and support the role libraries are playing in workforce development, education, health and wellness, and the delivery of government services.”
Among the most interesting findings are the following:
1. 169 million public library users nationwide, and 77 million of those use the public library Internet services
2. 50% of 14-18 year olds use library computers nationwide
3. 3.7 million people got jobs after filling out applications online at the library last year
4. Many kids who had computer access at home cited competition with siblings as their reason for preferring the library
5. Many of those seeking work cited the anonymity of the library and one-on-one assistance as their reason for choosing the library over the more depressing and labeling experience of going to a career center
Locally, we also
have a higher circulation of materials (833,595) and use of our libraries now,
despite being open in most only 4 days a week and only two evenings downtown,
than we have had any year since 1984 (838,000) though we were open 7 days a
week downtown and six days & four evenings a week in the branches
over most of that time. Our circulation this year is already 35,000 higher
(through the end of March) than it was last year.
I do not know what our local governments will consider vital in this tough economy. However, I do know that almost all individuals want to solve their own problems. The wellness services that support their desire to do so cost much less than loss of health, poor education, and disaffection from the community. Often we end up funding extremely expensive educational and health solutions because we have such a huge investment in them already and they have to be fixed, but ignore the cheaper principle of a stitch in time saves nine.
Whether you are a Democrat, a Republican or an Independent, I encourage you to think about what you pay local governments to maintain services you consider vital. Ask yourself why it makes sense to pay taxes to provide these services. The answer will almost certainly be that you will pay less out of your pocket each year to support this shared benefit than you would to provide it in some other way. The maintenance of roads and bridges has to be done every year because a blocked road can isolate you. It doesn't matter how enterprising you are if you are denied access. Maintaining bodies and minds offers a clear road to success for the enterprising as well. Denying people the chance to succeed on their own outside of expensive institutions already under huge remedial care burdens is a simple failure to consider the true costs and benefits to you as a taxpayer.