We hear a lot these days about how inefficient our government is, how much it costs, and how wasteful it is with our money. I even hear on occasion how its going to ruin our whole country. Rather than counter these arguments directly as I usually do, that is to reply along the lines of, “yes, but…you see…” I’d like to try something different: I’d like to present the opposite point of view. That is, to talk about what our government does well.
To start with, I’d like to talk about libraries. Yes libraries.
There’s probably nothing better in our country than the local library. Well before the birth of the internet, well before our modern era, there were libraries. They first appeared way back in Roman times, albeit in a strictly limited capacity, and they limped along in little collections at large public monuments like this until the advent of two factors, the printing press, which made books both cheap and ubiquitous, and the middle class.
In America most of our public lending libraries are free to use, that is they are paid for by tax dollars and private donations. Many of them were initially set up as endowments, like the ones made famous by Andrew Carnegie, but even these were built only after local governments promised to pay for their maintenance. They are free to use, but they are not free, especially if you are middle class or higher. From what I can tell, our public libraries cost each citizen about $42 per year.
Like the humble starfish that preserves entire marine ecosystems by eating mussels, the American public library is the keystone species in the ecosystem of reading. Without public libraries to promote the culture of reading and build communities of interconnected readers, publishers would face a diminished market for their titles. Indeed, the fact that reading remains a vibrant part of American cultural life is somewhat startling in the face of the competition for consumers’ attention: movies, video games, television, online shopping, browsing and social networking.
Indeed. Movies and video games clamor for our attention. There are more television networks putting out more shows than even before in history, especially when you consider what on-line viewing and DVD sales have done for that medium. And that’s not including youtube. And yet people still read. When I get on the subway most mornings I see about equal measure of books and e-readers, with many of the former sporting the distinctive stamp on their edges for the Los Angeles Public Library. I’d guess slightly over half of the riders use their time to read, the printed word still the preferred form of portable entertainment in a noisy and jostled world.
To my knowledge, reading is still maintains the highest entertainment/dollar value. Even the most expensive hard bound books offer hours and hours of entertainment. Compare that to the $14.00 you pay for a 2 hour movie.
Moreover, the ability to read–which is to say, the ability to teach oneself–is still the best, most tried and true, way to make it up the steep and often difficult ladder from poverty to middle-class. In a country that practically fetishizes the rags-to-riches story, books are the bootstraps by which one lifts themselves. Free public libraries are still the one place (besides public schools) where the proverbial poor youth can go to better themselves. Want to learn accounting? Want to fix your own plumbing? Want to know more about breast-feeding? What to surf the net but can’t afford a computer? The cheapest and often the best answer to your needs can be found at the local library. The only entry fee is the ability to read.
So what does it cost to keep a child’s mind open long enough to dream of making themselves better? What does it cost to help a working class man or woman teach themselves the rudiments of starting a business, or of surpassing the educational standards necessary to take college courses? All of these things cost much, or at least $42 a year, but each of them pay dividends well beyond their cost. Just one person transitioning from abject poverty to middle-class, goes from being a net cost to the system to a net benefit. For every year they stay out of poverty, they ad ten of thousands of dollars to our economy, not only paying back the cost for their library use, and public school use, but paying for another hundred or more poor people behind them.
And then there’s another thing often overlooked. Like almost everything else in America, libraries are both a public enterprise and a private one. A mixture of pure socialism (books and buildings being paid for mostly by the well-off, for the benefit of everyone), and yet strongly supporting capitalism. “Capitalism?” you say. “Libraries are at the center of a huge commercial endeavor?” you say.
You see, the concept that books are media worthy of our consumption, like we are all crack-head book addicts waiting eagerly for our next paper-and-ink fix, is sold so effectively at our local libraries, and heavily reinforced by our public schools, that it has created a massive group of readers, otherwise known as book junkies. And these book junkies spend their money, let me tell you. Trade sales for last year were $15.05 Billion, according to Publishers Weekly, with an increase of 6.9% over the year before. And who do you think made this massive market? Why you did with your $42 per year investment. Not a bad return, eh?
And lastly, I’d like to point out what should be painfully obvious. A large and well educated populous is the first requirement for a successful democracy. In a political world where both sides seem to think slandering the intelligence of the other side is a requirement, its easy to assume only a few Americans, and only from one’s own political side, have actually taken their free education seriously. The truth is an educated public is a benefit to both sides of the political aisle. Say what you will, but an active and educated mind is still the most effective prophylactic against an over-bearing and over-reaching government.
In short, libraries make our country stronger.
If you liked this essay. If you feel, like I do, that in the (often genuine) rush to worry about the size of our government we’ve overlooked its value, I’d like to challenge you. Please do something similar. Think of something you like about our government. Think of some value it brings, something it does well, instead of something it does poorly. And when you’ve thought of your thing, then post it. Put up your words. Put them up here in the comments, on Facebook, tweet them, whatever. It matters not how long it is, it matters not what you say, only that you say it. So say it.