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Why Is One US City Stripping the Word 'Public' from Public Library?

The public library is a uniquely American creation. Now we have to fight to keep it public.

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Last year, Chicagoans checked out nearly 10 million items...

The Chicago Public Library provided 3.8 million free one hour Internet sessions to the people of Chicago in 2009. The Internet has made public libraries more relevant, not less as your story suggests. There continues to exist in this country a vast digital divide. It exists along lines of race and class and is only bridged consistently and equitably through the free access provided by the Chicago Public Library and all public libraries in this nation. Some 60 percent of the individuals who use public computers a Chicago’s libraries are searching for and applying for jobs.

Chicago’s schools offer the shortest school day in the nation. As schools slash their budgets for school libraries and shorten their classroom teaching time, thousands of children flock to Chicago’s public libraries every day afterschool, in the evening and on weekends for homework assistance from our librarians and certified teachers hired by the public library.

Only recently have public libraries used economics to justify their existence. The results are consistently eye opening. A study of Wisconsin’s libraries estimated a $4 benefit for each $1 of taxpayer money. A Vermont study found more than a $5 benefit for each $1 of taxpayer money; Indiana found a benefit of a $2.38; Florida found a benefit of $6.54 for each dollar of taxpayer money. Or to look at the benefit-cost equation from the other side, for every $1 states or cities cut from their library budgets, their households and businesses spend $2.38 to $6.54 out of their own pockets.

Consider the case of Philadelphia. In 2010 the city spent $33 million on its public libraries and received another $12 million from other sources. That same year the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania undertook a detailed analysis of the economic impact of the public library. Among other things, it found that within 1/4 mile of a one of Philadelphia’s 54 branches the value of a home rose by $9,630. Overall, Philadelphia’s public libraries added $698 million to home values that in turn generated an additional $18.5 million in property taxes to the City and School District each year.

That benefit alone recouped more than half of the city’s investment.

Add to that the value of 6.5 million items borrowed each year, a value Fels calculated at more $100 million.

Add the value of the 3.2 million reference questions answered, the 1.2 million times people used computer terminals to access information outside the library and the millions of times people read materials inside the library but did not borrow them.

Add the value of the lessons in computer literacy and English as a second language of after school tutoring.

And then add the hard to quantify intangibles—a safe and warm refuge, concerts and lectures, camaraderie.

Even the most Scrooge-like conservative would conclude that Philadelphia should increase, not decrease, its investment in its public libraries.

Trying To Take The Public Out Of Public Libraries

All things public are under attack. The Fort Worth rebranding is an indication of how effective this attack has been. The city explained that it was dropping the word “public” because of its “potentially negative connotation”. The Founding Fathers would be disconsolate. John Adams wrote in 1776, “There must be a positive passion for the public good, the public interest…established in the minds of the people, or there can be no republican government, nor any real liberty: and this public passion must be superior to all private passions.” Thomas Jefferson agreed, “I profess… that to be false pride which postpones the public good to any private or personal considerations.”

 
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