For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
August 7, 2008 - are successful libraries worth reinvestment?
Consider the following. Based on a comparison of library statistics between 2002 and 2006:
* Visits to libraries increased by 10 percent across the country; at Douglas County Libraries, 65 percent.
* Circulation (checkouts) grew by 9 percent nationwide; at Douglas County Libraries, 74 percent.
* Nationwide, the number of Internet-capable computers increased by 38 percent; at Douglas County Libraries, 126 percent.
* Our circulation of children's materials (in 2007) is the highest in Colorado at 3,122,000 and is 48% of our circulation. That outstrips the 42% that was reported as the highest in the country in 2006 -- at a library in Vermont.
Here are a few local stats:
* Over 80% of our households have at least one active library card.
* Independent research has revealed that the return on investment for the Douglas County Libraries is just over $5 per tax dollar invested.
* A recently completed poll by Hill Research reports that we have an approval rating among our citizens of a staggering 93 percent.
Despite all the above, that same Hill Research poll says our odds going into a 2008 election with our current proposal are: fifty-fifty. Plus or minus four percent.
I hasten to add that this even-steven split isn't about some kind of perceived problem with us. There's a lot of concern about the economy out there.
That means the library will have to think long and hard about both what it can afford, and how it can meet vital capital needs in these tightening times. Message received.
But just because I have the kind of brain that can't stop asking the next question, I've been pondering the difference between the public and private sectors. Those of us in government often hear this suggestion: run it like a business!
If our library were a business, the market would call for investment. Double digit growth in use every year, and a proven record of tight fiscal management? By any measure, the Douglas County Libraries is successful: performance-oriented, forward-looking, an industry leader. In the business world, you'd snap up more stock.
In the public sector, reinvestment means a tax increase. One could argue that the dividends are reckoned as service. But more often, people think "things are fine! Why give the government more money!"
They don't think: "I like the outcomes of my investment, and if I invest more, I'll get more of those outcomes."
What are the outcomes of a successful public library? Children who love books. A community that gathers together at neutral ground to talk, to connect, and to plan. An economic engine for downtowns. A hand up to new and expanding businesses. A place where everyone, regardless of age or formal education or wealth, has free access to the intellectual resources of our culture. Is that worth reinvestment?
Back in the private sector, crisis is greeted with a drop in the value of stock. But in the public sector, crisis is often used to justify the urgent need for new funds.
So here's the puzzle. We reward businesses for success and punish them for failure. But we reward government for failure and punish it for success.
Isn't that weird?
LaRue's Views are his own.