The Collection Quagmire

At first reading of this story, I was pretty horrified:

A representative of Frederick County Public Libraries will come before the Board of County Commissioners Thursday to discuss the books, CDs and DVDs the system has acquired in the past few months. The county commissioners will also decide whether to free up funds for the next three months of library purchases.

Commissioner Billy Shreve, who has already started poring over the list of recent buys, believes some of the materials might not be worth taxpayer dollars.

“Why should my tax dollars pay for someone else’s recreation? Why should my tax dollars pay for someone to watch ‘Charlie’s Angels’ or ‘Battlestar Galactica’ or read about Lindsay Lohan?” Shreve said in a phone interview. “It’s funny looking through here, and it’s also sad, because it’s money we could be using for schools, money we could be using for our police and firefighters.”

Library officials and the public should start asking the same questions, Shreve said. In his view, the library’s mission should center on education rather than entertainment.

Then, after a few hours of letting it roll around the brain pan, I relaxed and looked at it for what it was: the shifting of old bones into new graves. The library version of this canard, the “why should my tax dollars pay for [insert thing I think is frivolous] that the library buys”, has proven to be a well worn path for critics who look at one aspect of the collection and declare the whole mission either as not worth it or misguided. This is examining less than $600 of a quarterly materials budget that is over $250,000  (0.0025%, to be precise) in just the items mentioned. While I’m sure a fine tooth combing of all of the purchases could push that price tag higher, I’m going to go out on a limb and say it is still a fraction of the overall budget.

But, really, Shreve stepped into a philosophical quagmire here, one that is special to libraries and perhaps our best defense on collections. The logical follow-up question to his stance is, “So what do you think should be in the collection?” Here is a partial answer to that:

Critics have objected that the commissioners’ scrutiny of detailed purchase lists could lead to censorship of certain library materials. However, Shreve says he is just trying to start a conversation, not control what goes on bookshelves.

So, the conversation is whether or not entertainment items should be on library shelves which in no way controls what goes on the shelves. Uh huh. I suppose it won’t have a chilling effect at all. As Commissioner David Gray points out, removing entertainment would take out the entire fiction section.

From here, one could just continue to pose questions and let the person beat themselves up with the answers they give. “What is entertainment?” “What is educational?” “How can the library tell the difference?” Vague comments about how the library should be centered on education and not entertainment do not a policy make, even if it scores points with a constituency. I’m not sure how any of those items drag it away from being centered on education, but I’ll let that one go.

What makes this story interesting to me is not so much a standard knucklehead approach to securitizing the collection for any whiffs of weakness, but that I’ve actually been to that library. My girlfriend’s parents live in Frederick and we attended a wedding there a few months ago. They took me by the library as part of a tour of the downtown area. It’s a great big beautiful building right along one of the canals that goes through town.

No, the interesting part to me is that the library has computer center that is closed due to a lack of staffing, at least according to the sign on center’s door during my visit. I was told at the time that it had been like that for awhile. I find his quibbling about a couple thousand dollars to be breathtakingly short sighted if the library can’t even staff their computer labs. This has a ripple effect in terms of being unable to offer classes to the public for programs that can be used to improve job skills and/or help with job hunting or resume building. Although, I guess it’s easier to fight over a couple thousand dollars each quarter than to expend way more money hiring people and providing them with benefits and salaries so that the library could be properly staffed.

Honestly, the best response to statements made by people like Shreve is just let them flail away. The more they struggle to articulate their position, the more the quagmire sucks them in. I can safely say that buying a biography on Lindsey Lohan (as loathsome as that may be) is cheaper than a constituent lawsuit brought about by the restriction of library materials (which, in this case of an elected official acting in his government capacity, does meet the definition of the word, “censorship”). If anything, I hope this issue illuminates how the library could use more support from the commissioners of Frederick County.


(h/t: Infodocket for reporting it and Amanda Goodman for pointing it out on Twitter)


Update: Mike makes an excellent point in his comment below. Don’t miss it.

5 thoughts on “The Collection Quagmire

  1. Perhaps a year ago, I would have completely agreed that letting someone flail away at themselves is the best policy. It would seem so evident that the person talking was just trying to score a few cheap points that *no one* would take them seriously.

    But that was last year. Now, I believe that we *should* have that conversation about what is entertainment and why tax dollars should pay for it. The reason is Calvinistic voters who seem to believe that if they are helping anyone besides themselves, it is wrong. We need to help those people understand exactly how they *are* helping themselves, even if they never personally watch Charlie’s Angels.

    I have family members who both complain about how they have trouble getting seen in the emergency room because of uninsureds, but also complain about health care reform. They complain about funding of PBS, even while their kids and grandkids are watching it. They don’t understand why their tax dollars should go towards maintaining a road, but think it’s just fine whem my tax dollars go to one of their pet projects.

    Even if Shreve doesn’t get to initiate a mass community review of the materials budget, it might happen internally on some level. That collection development group may question whether to replace that copy of when it inevitably wears out. Or the director or board may be hesitant to allow purchases that might bring the library into a questionable light. Or more people take up the call to defund anything they don’t like, and the declare the library irrelevant.

    Yeah, it’s clear to me that Shreve is a selfish jerk, hoping to save a few pennies while not addressing bigger needs. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore him. It’s not giving power to a fringe element; it’s recognizing that fringe elements *already* have power.

    • Excellent point, Mike. You got me.

      Yes, this is an opportunity to educate people whether they are politicians or the public. It should be a great chance to promote the value of the library and especially the return on investment for tax money. I think the issue is that people don’t see an immediate effect and therefore are likely is discount it (there are studies that indicate how the different parts of the brain handle instant vs deferred gratification as well as concepts of reward over time periods). But, yes, the times have changed.

      My only reservation is that either approach should not be the default response. It’s best to get an idea of the situation and then pick a response that reflects it, even if it is a combination of the two.

      • Totally agree with tailoring the response to the situation. And thanks for the shout-out. The part that gets frustrating is when people pretend to listen and then continue their rants about how the library is just books — and awful books at that. Or just a homeless shelter with computers. Or just (insert thing someone doesn’t like here).

  2. I have this theory that 9 times out of 10, “wasteful” government spending is anything that particular person does not personally benefit from.

  3. Well, I first arrived here because I thought this was an agnostic forum, and now it becomes clear that its a librarian forum. But, that’s okay. I still have something to say that I think is relevent. While Republicans have always tried to fracture the power of labor unions, now they want to render impotent the collective opinions of educators. I live in Idaho, and I saw the ads advertising the state lottery would pay for better education. Bullshit!! The state lottery money does go to education, but, at the same time, state funding of education was reduced by orders of magnitude. Basically, the lottery earnings went into the general tax coffers. And the programs that fell to the wayside was for children, not just with special needs, but, the children who do not thrive in the student assembly line format of public schools.

    Now, you mention entertainment as opposed to education. I almost need to laugh at the foolishness. The most gifted teachers achieve their miraculous success by making learning interesting and entertaining. A child comsumed with the plot of a story is not only practicing reading and comprehension, they are enjoying the act of learning. Would they propose that public libraries should only contain text books? That art and philosophy are a waste of time? And let me seal the envelope with this wax imprint, that agnostism is the purest form of freethought, where no necessity is left to kill in the name of god, nor is any social issue left in the hands of a god invented by cavemen. That the sanest words ever uttered by a human was, “I don’t know”.


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