Government budget cuts, at all levels, can have tragic effects. It will take us a long time to recover from the damage the current cuts have done and will do. There are many vital public services – such as health care, aid to the homeless, and schools – that we must do our utmost to protect. But, at least for me, there are few cuts more bothersome than the closing of public libraries.
At the same time, use of libraries has been increasing for years. In 2008, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the average person visited a public library 5.1 times, an increase of almost 20 percent since 1999. Of course, this use is not equally distributed – some people visit regularly, while others not at all.
In part, this is because many low-income Americans rely on libraries, not only for books and periodicals, but as their primary source of internet access. As a result, the number of computers in public libraries has almost doubled since 2000.
Let’s do some simple, illustrative math here.
In fiscal year 2008 (again, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), there were roughly 9,300 public libraries in the U.S., with a total cost of around 10.7 billion dollars. That figure represents roughly 0.4 percent – four tenths of one percent – of all state and local government expenditures. On a per capita basis, this is about 35 dollars per person.
There is also a fair amount of research on what a great public investment libraries are. They provide services that many people cannot afford, such as internet access. A bunch of state- and local-level analyses have found that for every dollar we spent on public libraries, the public realizes about 3-5 dollars in benefits – i.e., what they would have spent to find the services elsewhere. You would be hard-pressed to find a greater return on investment anywhere, in either the public or private sector.
But what really bothers me about the wave of library closings has very little to do with their economic benefits. Closing libraries – there is no other way to put this – is a symptom of societal decay. Libraries are a symbol of functional democracy and informed citizens – and, indeed, of an enlightened people. Many of our nation’s most celebrated figures, from Benjamin Banneker and Abigail Adams to Abraham Lincoln, Ray Bradbury and Jack London, educated themselves in public libraries. These institutions represent our collective commitment to equal access to knowledge and information, regardless of status or income.
If that’s not worth 35 bucks, nothing is.