In defense of well-funded libraries An All-American call to arms

Library building with flag in front
Photo by Travis Gauthier

When a book can be purchased and delivered to your home within 48 hours, the brick and mortar public library may seem outdated.

“How anti-American,” Ben Franklin would’ve said. Indeed, Franklin attributed no less than the spirit of the American Revolution to ordinary citizens having library access.

Ten years ago, Lafayette voters chose to invest in their library system, buying into an ideal as old as the republic itself. Since then, three regional branches have opened, the main library Downtown was renovated, and further expansions are planned. This was accomplished with the renewal of two library millages in 2012 and 2016. In short, because of that investment, the system flourished.

Among two parishwide millages that are up for renewal on Saturday, April 28, one supports the operation and maintenance of the Parish Library.

In round numbers, the library system currently carries a fund balance of $40 million, but more than half of that is already accounted for in capital improvement projects. Expected revenue for the year is $14 million, leaving a little under $27 million in the bank at the end of fiscal year 2017-18. These funds will allow for a strategic growth plan that ensures the system continues to serve the parish needs. Critics have taken aim at the library’s reserves, seeing the pot of money as a wanton excess — a waste of tax dollars that could go to other services or back to the taxpayers.

But, as local governments look to stabilize budgets in times of economic flux, fund balances are key to long-term planning. Just as best practice in personal and business finances is to build savings to plan future expenditures and protect against unexpected costs, so too should local governments build fiscal reserves. Unlike a general rainy day fund, however, it’s important to remember that funds raised by dedicated millages are restricted to specific purposes.

If the library already has financial reserves, is there any reason to renew the millage? Yes. Part of the reserve is spoken for in order to sustain projects already underway. The West Regional Library in Scott is currently under construction. A new bookmobile will provide services to those with limited access. Long-term, expansions to the North and South libraries will be covered as well, including furniture, technology and related expenses for outfitting the buildings. These expansions are not luxuries; they’re investments. Regional branches, in particular, provide access to students who need computer and internet access and study space after school but who don’t live close to the Main Library. Those without reliable transportation options, especially the young, elderly and economically-strapped, need accessible locations throughout the parish.

The establishment of America’s first public library in Philadelphia was Franklin’s initial foray into public projects. He envisioned the library as a common resource and a vibrant civic space that would lift the community as a whole. His model was widely copied among the colonies. With satisfaction, he recounted the salutary effect of the institution upon the country: “These libraries have improved the general conversation of the Americans, made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries, and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies in defense of their privileges.”

Though the country has changed a great deal since the late 18th century, libraries play no less a significant role today. The Lafayette libraries offer numerous programs to foster not only reading but also, more broadly, literacy. Classes address digital literacy on introductory skills for Microsoft Office, genealogical research online and coding clubs for those interested in learning computer programing. Access to tax preparation information addresses financial literacy. Material literacy is offered through maker-spaces and large references on everything from cooking, gardening and vehicle maintenance to home repair.

Most important, libraries are spaces that foster civic literacy. Not only do libraries provide substantial historical and governmental records access, but they also provide a physical space for citizens to meet freely. As host to numerous events, libraries offer regular meeting space for local interest groups, civic organizations and public forums. Much as Franklin envisioned, libraries create the physical space for citizens to gather and exchange ideas.

Too often in modern life, we are stuck in our own bubbles. Libraries are a critical space where people interact across typical divides, especially economic class. It’s easy to assume that today everyone has internet access, a smart device, and an Amazon account. But the library provides access to bridge the digital divide for many who lack these resources. Franklin lamented that in his own home growing up he had access to few books and spent the next many years of his life trying to catch up to the more esteemed and learned citizens around him. His public library project specifically aimed to provide equal access to knowledge regardless of a person’s economic station. Access to information, he realized, was a foundation of liberty. Though the technology has changed, access remains vital.

With the previous millage dedications and renewals, Lafayette voters placed their confidence in the library system. They invested in the construction and staffing of new and improved facilities to serve the entire parish. As a result, Lafayette has a first-rate library system. Often government is criticized for spending on the construction of new facilities or infrastructure but not adequately planning for the operating costs. The parish library is a shining counterexample of taking both construction and maintenance into account. A renewal will ensure continued support for the improvement, maintenance and staffing needs of these facilities.

Why do we need to continue to support our libraries? Because libraries stand as a central civic institution in our nation. Every individual, regardless of economic status, deserves access to the free exchange of information. Moreover, in a world where online interactions are too often alienating and vitriolic, the library offers the opportunity to encounter other people and ideas.

This can happen at any number of events at the library: a public forum, a craft activity, children’s story hour, chess club, or even reading an old-fashioned book. Start by reading Franklin’s autobiography, which offers a commanding defense of liberty and opportunity — American-style. You can check out a copy from the library.