Libraries Are Not Free, and They‘re Worth Every Dollar!

Libraries are worth every quarter, too!

It’s tiresome. Every time a public library asks voters for a small tax increase, the anti-tax fundamentalists start hollering. I call them fundamentalists because their opposition to taxes is beyond rational; these are people who oppose any tax, no matter what:

  • Roads full of potholes? No! no! no!
  • Schools dealing with a huge increase in new residents? No! no! no!
  • Firehouse could use some upgrades? No! no! no!
  • 70-year-old library building needs to be replaced? No! no! no!

They’re the people who will tell you, with a straight face, that they shouldn’t have to cover those things because they don’t drive on those roads, have any children in school, haven’t experienced a fire, and don’t use the library. In fact, they’ll look right back at you and declare that, actually, taxes should be lower. It’s astounding!

One has to wonder, when the collection basket comes around at church, do they take money out? I mean, well, they gave 10% of their income two weeks ago, but they missed church last Sunday, so aren’t they entitled to a refund? Plus, the church is raising money to replace the pews and, well, they don’t use all of pews, so why should they pay for their replacement? It’s a legitimate question for anti-taxxers: Support the common good of the congregation or buy a new jacuzzi for the master bedroom?

But maybe I’m going too far. Household budgets are stretched pretty thin for a lot of people. I can understand that; when I was growing up, the majority of our toys came from Goodwill. My parents worked 12-hour days to keep our family in the basics — we weren’t impoverished, but I look back with amazement at what personal sacrifices they made to make ends meet. That said, no matter how little we had, my father dutifully wrote checks when the school booster club asked for funds. And he never complained about paying taxes.

Did my parents like taxes? Probably not. But they understood the fundamental idea that it was due to taxes that our weekly trips to the library, school lunches for me and my brother, medical care for my mother’s aging parents, and a myriad other services, were possible. It’s that simple. So when, in my teens, I began working and I noticed a certain amount of my meager paychecks being put aside for taxes, I didn’t complain either.

Do I like taxes? Not particularly. But as my parents, and a great deal of other people in the United States, understand: Our country, individual states, and cities work, in part, because we do our part to support the common good. Taxes are an investment in the whole society, not just the rich or the poor, black or white, native-born or immigrant, old or young.

And libraries are the perfect example of how they are a smart investment. You see, those weekly library trips of my youth were only possible thanks to the generosity of the taxpayers in the City of Los Angeles!

Yes, it’s true. Libraries are not free. And yet, unlike so many other ways to spend, it’s pretty much impossible to argue against them from a financial perspective.

I don’t know exactly what percentage of our parent’s tax payments supported the local library, but I am certain that it cannot possibly compare to the cost of the piles of books my brother and I went through every week. Nor is it equivalent to the enriching library programs we attended, lessons in responsibility we learned from having our own library cards, or the ultimate pay-off: That thanks to the library, we became lifelong learners. Talk about long-term investment.

The average household in the United States pays $7.50 per month for their library. Is that a lot? It’s hard to tell. So let’s consider it in comparison with services comparable to what the library offers:

Books: The next James Patterson hardcover, The People vs. Alex Cross (release date: November 20th, 2017), is currently on sale at Amazon for $18.90. That’s more than two months of library service. You may have to wait for the newest Patterson to come to the library, but you have access to thousands of other thrillers in the meantime. And with so many libraries offering e-books, you don’t even have to leave the house to take advantage of what your taxes buy you.

Music: A single CD, say Taylor Swift’s Reputation, is $12.97 on Amazon. That’s more than a month of a library where you get tons of CDs at your beck and call. Most people, though, subscribe to streaming music services like Spotify (Premium: $9.99), Tidal (basic Premium: $9.99), or Google Play (individual: $9.99) for their music. That’s fine, many libraries offer streaming music through services like Freegal or Hoopla, complete with smartphone apps. Personally, I love Hoopla and use it all the time.

Audiobooks: Individual audiobooks on CD are very expensive (think $50–$60 per book) and a basic Audible subscription is $14.95 a month. Libraries have both physical audiobooks and streaming services like Overdrive, Hoopla, RBDigital, and more! For your information, you don’t have to pay extra for any of those — they’re simply available to you as a taxpayer.

Movies: A single feature film DVD is anywhere from $10–20, a basic subscription to Netflix is $7.99/month, Hulu is $7.99/month, and don’t even get me started on the monthly cost of cable or satellite for your TV. Libraries have DVDs, streaming services like Hoopla, Kanopy, Digitalia, and more. Plus, most have monthly feature-film screenings with discussion.

Internet Access: Like with cable/satellite service for TV, this is a sore spot for a lot of people. Most people pay anywhere from $20–$140 per month for internet access. Pretty much every library gives you internet access with a library card. Some don’t even require that.

Most households pay for one (or more) of these services every single month. Individually, they cost more than the average month of library service, but if you start adding everything up, it quickly becomes obvious that the price of library service is insignificant compared to what most households spend on similar services. This is not even taking into account that libraries increase surrounding property values, are good for economic activity, and serve as a source of pride for communities. They are outstanding for educational attainment, often serve as an archive for local heritage, and are open to all. Multiple studies demonstrate that for every one dollar invested in libraries, there is a return-on-investment (ROI) of four or five dollars.

Taking into account everything you get from a tax-supported public library, it is completely obvious to everyone (except maybe the anti-taxxers) that libraries are a smart investment.


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