Guest editorial: Reasons to support public libraries over public schools
by Steven C. Latimer

Guest Editorial Graphic Schilling Show BlogCrozetians and Western Albemarleans awoke to welcomed news on December 8, 2011, as the Crozet Gazette and Charlottesville Daily Newspaper reported that the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors had voted to direct county staff to send out an RFP, or request for proposal, to build the new Crozet Library.

A part of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library (JMRL)—which is the public regional library that serves the City of Charlottesville, and the counties of Albemarle, Greene, Louisa, and Nelson—the Crozet Library has been in need of expansion for quite some time: the building, which is a former train station in downtown Crozet, is so small that when the library takes inventory of newly released books, staff has to remove an older book from the stacks to make space.  Additionally, in late 2011 the fire marshal determined that no more than 50 people should safely occupy the Crozet Library at any given time.  Library programs, such as lectures, routinely draw crowds of over 50 patrons, so some events have had to be held at the neighboring Crozet Elementary School on Crozet Avenue.

The creation of a new home for the Crozet Library has been on the backburner for years, as the newly designated Library Avenue just south of downtown Crozet has lay vacant for the past two years.  Conservatives, libertarians, and constitutionalists who are upset with the performance of our area public schools and the graduates they are producing should consider lending their support to the JMRL and become library advocates for the following reasons.

First, libraries are overall cost effective and spend far less of taxpayers’ money than the government schools.  For example, depending on what number you look at, the total operating budget for the JMRL is around 6 million dollars per year.  Contrast this to the annual operating budget of the Charlottesville City Schools alone at 69 million dollars, and it is easy to see that libraries are feeding much, much less from the public trough and display greater efficiency for it: in Charlottesville, the average core per-pupil spending is 16,141 dollars per pupil, per year.  This ranks among the highest in the state, yet math and reading scores are serially lagging.  The cost per person who patronizes the library is far less than that, and considering the population it serves, the JMRL is actually among the most heavily used public libraries in America.  Circulation data support this claim.

Also, librarianship as a profession is very rewarding, but is not known for being extremely well-paying, and instances of librarians and library workers milking the system are few and far between.  Contrast this with some public school administrators in central offices who routinely draw six-figure salaries and have little to show for it.

Second, there are far fewer opportunities for socialist indoctrination of area youth in the public libraries.  This community has in recent years unearthed controversies in the public schools, such as the recent Kid Pan Alley episode, and when a high school teacher was caught on camera saying that America should “convert” to socialism!

Here is a more general example: it is a common belief that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal pulled America out of the Great Depression.  This is what students in high school American History courses by and large “learn” through their reading and instruction.  In reality, this enlargement of the public sector prolonged the misery of the Depression; had the federal government followed a free market direction, the economy would have returned to pre-1929 output in a few to several years.  Due to FDR’s expansionist policies, the Depression did not end until the Second World War.  Teachers may mean well, but they and the history textbooks their school districts adopt do not tell the truth about the New Deal.

I graduated from a public high school in Virginia seven years ago, and it was only afterward when I, as an adult, was able to read up on the Great Depression and American History on my own, using books of my own choosing, rather than the choosing of a group of teachers.  The availability of choice and competition in the free market is far better than a one-size-fits-all textbook.  The Jefferson-Madison Regional Library is a great place to learn about American history by considering a variety of books, not the one book that is given the stamp of approval by public schools.  The library is probably the only place in town where you are guaranteed to find copies of the left-leaning A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, and its conservative counterpart, A Patriot’s History of the United States, by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen.  It is through our public libraries that some citizens are replacing their indoctrination with an education.

Third, the JMRL boasts a voluminous selection of items that circulate to patrons.  The selection and diversity of items greatly outnumbers even the largest bookstores.  I am aware of libertarian arguments that government should not be competing with the private sector, and frankly, I am sympathetic to libertarian concerns and am willing to listen.  I enjoy patronizing large bookstores such as Barnes & Noble as well as small mom and pop used bookshops. However, I also know that there is more or less a free market in this country – it’s not perfect, but free enterprise is the most productive supplier of human needs and economic justice.  Private booksellers do not seem to have the same selection as public libraries, either because the free market will not allow it, or because private booksellers are unwilling to stock their shelves with the same ferocity.  Public libraries are more likely to possess rare, out of print books that private bookstores do not carry.  This makes visiting the public or university library nearly mandatory for those conducting serious research.

Liberals and progressives praise libraries because they see them as institutions that support democracy, and because libraries are cultural “equalizers.” It is because of public libraries, they argue, that even the poorest among us can have access to books.  Frankly, I am happy that they are happy; however, I have no interest in “spreading the wealth around.”  I have always felt that President Obama has not spent enough time in libraries, and has spent too much time “community organizing.”  I am advocating for public libraries for a different reason, because they are a better and cheaper tool for learning than are public schools.  Thomas Jefferson said that he could not live without books, and a society that is going to march toward freedom and liberty needs to be knowledgeable and well-educated.  I recommend that conservatives and libertarians “grow. learn. connect.” at their library, and I hope you will join me in a library near you!

Note: The author is a Charlottesville resident who works as a library support specialist with the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library.  He has taught math at a public school and has ran for School Board.  Opinions expressed here are his own, and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the JMRL.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Perhaps in an ideal world students beginning their senior years in high school would be tested to see if their views were liberal or conservative, and then assigned reading from the other side of the spectrum. It’s great that a conservative can go to JMRL and find a rebuttal to the old liberal argument he’s been taught. It’s even better that if he looks a little further he can find rebuttals to the new argument, and note that among economists and historians, that new conservative argument has largely been rejected.

    Three cheers for public libraries. Four for truly open minds.

  2. Latimer's argument fails to make an effective case that libraries constitute a "more efficient" use of taxpayer money than public schools. Libraries have many patrons on their rolls, to be sure, but the vast majority of these patrons rarely (or never) take advantage of library facilities or services. They certainly don't spend seven hours a day, five days a week inside a library building as most public school students do (unless, of course, they happen to be homeless). In most communities, public libraries are rather like bus transit — a service theoretically offered to everyone, yet actually used by a small percentage of individuals. If public libraries were somehow eliminated, most citizens in the community would barely notice their absence. Public schools, in contrast, are used intensively by large sections of the community for extended periods of time during any given year. Using Latimer's own yardstick, one could easily conclude that public schools, though more expensive than libraries, are more thoroughly utilized resources, and therefore constitute the better value for taxpayers.

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