This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

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?

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