Archive for the ‘Libraries’ Category

When people speak of economic interactions, they usually refer to the demand/supply model of market economy. There are purchasers (individual consumers and businesses/institutions) and there are providers (businesses/institutions).

Individuals do buy entertainment products and they are conceived of value-addition. A willing buyer is paying a willing supplier for a product or commercial service, and the gross domestic product increases.

When an individual borrows say a CD from a library, and reads in depth of the music from a biography or review also from the library, listens to the music with a group of his/her friends (and share a potluck dinner), no increase in GDP has occurred.

If experience is the basis of wealth, of value, then certainly a great deal of value has been created. Education, sensual enjoyment, entertainment, aesthetic wonder. But, no GDP.

The same quandry has been expressed relative to self-help type activities (gardening, potluck dinners, shared religious experience, families taking care of their great-grand-parents, children). When I personally deeply enjoy some music, or have a moving conversation with friends, or good loving (talk and other) with my wife, no GDP. It could be GDP if it occurred through a commercial exchange, but as informal or done by oneself, there is no GDP.

The market economy is described by proponents as more than just admirable for its characteristics of responsiveness. It is made into a fetish, a utopia, illustrated by the summary “the market economy realizes the optimal allocation of resources and capital”. It is responsive and amazing in that respect, but it ignores too many other factors to be relied on for the utopian summary to be accurate.

In addition to dismissing the relevance of informal service, my primary criticism of the market economy and measurements supporting decisions by individuals, businesses and social policy, is that it doesn’t measure wealth from the perspective of individuals’ experience.

Value is ONLY measured by what one contributes in exchange, and not in the enjoyment that one personally derives, or the enjoyment/experience that is created by interpersonally rich interaction (family, friends, community).

This inconsistency was brought home to me after a conversation with a friend who has some psychological disability that prohibits him from employment, but still enjoys life and things in life deeply, and shares that enjoyment freely and openly. His life is construed as generating no economic value.

In contrast, during our conversation on classical music, he described for me his experience of his love of a particular musical piece by playing for me selections of three different performances of the same composer, each interpreted beautifully but very differently. One emphasized the mathematical symmetry of the piece. The two others had a much more emotional, romantic approach.

He created value. His description of listening to the music (you could see it), was occassionally of his hair standing on end, that passionate.

I contest that in an economy whose purpose is to create enriching experience, that his even listening to the music, was a value-creating economic event. There is no exchange, no provider/consumer relationship, but great value was created in the form of an individuals enriching experience itself.

The dilemma occurs in the role of money, and the distribution of disposal capital. The dollar vote system of “economic democracy” in which income and wealth distribution are fundamentally skewed, do not then optimize the creation of experienced value, but distort it to a significant extent.

Even if individual A has 1000 times more potential to enjoy and contribute to others enjoyment than individual B, and therefore should control more assets, the market economy assigns purchasing power both arbitrarily (relative to the potential to enjoy) and in greater discrepancy (billions to 1 in distribution of control of assets).

1000 to 1 then is relatively democratic. One person, one enjoyment is the progressive democratic tendency. Why should one person be construed as having more experience enjoyment potential than another? Because they do.

The democratic distribution of ability to enjoy, and even to contribute to others’ enjoyment, allows for great social organizing potential, without requiring a market approach. You don’t need a corporation, a business plan, a lawyer, an accountant, to create value in some spheres. It is largely a community self-help effort.

By the criteria of ability to create enjoyment, with the use of finite funds, public libraries and other public institutions are OPTIMAL uses of funds, creating far far more experienced value than the financial cost to realize.

To summarize value is created by the ability to enjoy AND the ability provide for others enjoyment. (By enjoyment I include fulfillment of  human survival and other needs, as well as aesthetic and personal enjoyment.)

My poster-child friend with psychological disabilities realizes value in experiencing. The musician, composers, reviewers and others contributed to the experience value. The publishers, the library, the record label contributed to the experienced value. The developer of the technology, the invester in the record label, the use of the materials contributed to the experienced value. The air, the water, the sky, thought itself contributed to the experienced value.

Some economic contributors, some free.

Experience though IS GDP, not only exchange.

Our public metrics and policy and personal decisions though should be oriented to realize experienced value.

The way that financial net worth is preserved and multiplied is by business investment. The way that experienced value is preserved and multiplied is different. That occurs through social and educational means, people learning how to enjoy, and encouragement and empowerment of social democracy (person centered) over “economic democracy” (dollar vote centered).

Its not exactly leftist, but it definitely is NOT the financial marketplace utopia/dystopia.

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There are three primary features of a cooperative library fund emphasizing the development of library collections.

One is a pull approach, of organizing the collection, handling and distribution effort for in-kind contributed materials that libraries serve. The library fund would undertake fundraising and collection efforts in locale by locale to accept donations of books, CD’s, DVD’s, audio and video cassettes (so outdated?), even comics.

From the materials collected, some categorization of physical condition and fitness of the materials for public library collections would have to be undertaken. The purpose of the library fund is NOT to distribute pornography or propaganda.

Materials would be categorized into three categories: available for library distribution, available for resale, to be disposed of. Those materials available for library distribution would be publicized to public libraries, and ordered (for free) on a first-come first-serve basis, perhaps with some guidelines as to quantity of materials distributed.

Donors would be entitled to take itemized charitable deductions on contributions on some methodical basis (accepted by the IRS), thereby indirectly providing some “income” to the communities that the contributions originated. The benefits of shared free access to the library materials would be realized by the library acquisitions themselves.

For more custom or sophisticated materials (textbooks, academic publications), contributions to an inter-library loan facility (not walk in), would greatly enhance the depth of the library system’s offerings, without taking up a great amount of space in public or even academic library’s space. (I did have an occasion to visit a local community college library last year, and was appalled to see how thin the college’s library collection was. They are obviously grossly underfunded, and in-kind textbook contributions alone even would greatly enhance and update their offering.)

The second component would be active fund-raising, among a variety of populations with the typical fundraising objectives of other foundations. That includes “mass” solicitation of small donations. Mass solicitation of funds is as much oriented towards informing the populace of the role, importance and condition of library funding, as it is for actually raising the money.

Dedicated solicitation of large donations, either for unrestricted use, restricted uses (building, acquisitions, staffing grants), or for restricted legacy funds (living charitable trusts, actual funded endowment contributions, or designations in wills).

This requires the establishment of all the features of foundation management, including fundraising development teams, fund investment management, grant publicity and approval process, etc.

The third component of a cooperative library fund would be the establishment of a publishing/production division that would pre-fund publication of materials designated primarily for library use. They would function similar to university presses which although they don’t generally pre-fund free distribution, do provide funding for material that conforms with their definition of merit, not a profit criteria.

An example might be a book published, with the author’s advance, editorial process, and initial print run for free distribution to 4000 libraries pre-funded, then commercial distribution through bookstores. Audiobook production would similarly be feasible. Film production costs may be prohibitive, but a pre-funded documentary production series might be feasible.

I ran an audiobook production company in the early 90’s called Green Island Productions. We produced materials that we considered to have merit as intellectual contribution combined with some commercial appeal in the niche of intelligent liberal thinkers. We had mixed success. Our completed products included a women’s literature series, a classic progressive series, all produced to high dramatic standards of presentation and production values. We had started on an African writers series of really unique and very insightful material, but ran out of funds.

A pre-funded production company would be a step in the media distribution transition process from libraries in a marginal role as very secondary and resented distribution path for mass media products, to a distinct media distribution niche in its own right, intentionally containing high quality and high intellectual quality materials that enhance its “citizenship” role, that would otherwise not be produced within the star system.

The three components of this effort would comprise a fairly sophisticated and complex enterprise (not-for-profit), but would deliver enormous social benefit.

It is a new world, with librarianship a valued social contribution, if we make it happen.

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Cooperative Library Fund

In order to fulfill libraries’ great social mission, they need funding. The purchase of materials, construction and maintenance of facilities, staffing, just won’t happen without funding. Personally, I believe that public libraries can operate more efficiently than they have historically, but that is just an improvement, not a comment on how library role and funding is institutionally structured.

Currently, most public libraries receive the bulk of their funding from municipalities. Taxpayers pay for public libraries through the levying and collection of real estate property taxes. In locales with high property valuations and low needs, there is plenty of money available for excellent library collections and facilities. It is only the choices of taxpayers that effect the relative emphasis on libraries in wealthy communities. Property taxes are low, and the choice to adequately fund a library in an affluent suburban bedroom community, is just a community amenity. In bedroom communities, there is little critical “community” anyway, of which the library can be the token unifying community feature, or not.

In poorer communities, libraries must “fight” for funding with police, local social services, fire, schools. As libraries are NOT a minimum necessity (like police or school system), it is only the heroic efforts to advocate for funding by librarians and boosters, that keeps libraries alive. Often, municipalities will contribute only the minimum funding needed to keep a library certified and qualifying for the limited (but still significant) state funds that they are eligible for.

Libraries often have Friends of the Public Library, that can fund-raise and purchase needed assets and some acquisitions outside of the municipal budgeting process, but only to a limited extent. I’ve had conversations with librarians (plural), stating that if they succeeded in privately raising funds for the library, either through Friends or private donations, that the municipalities would claim the money, resulting in really a very paralyzing fundraising structure.

As I referred in an earlier post, public libraries are accepted (even loved) institutions, even by publishers and film distributors, etc., but only if they are restrained to a marginal, dependant status.

There is nothing that I can do, short of speaking up at public meetings and private conversation with city representatives year by year, to change the institutional relationship of libraries within municipalities. Even well-run municipalities seem to find a way to get themselves into fiscal difficulty, and cut libraries’ budgets as not quite “essential” municipal services.

But, there is something that I and others can do to enhance the ability of libraries to acquire materials, funds, even capital additions, through active national scale fundraising for public libraries.

The Bill Gates Foundation organized a significant library grant campaign, providing IT infrastructure and some acquisition and staffing funds to public libraries throughout the country in the early 2000’s. I don’t know the exact figure of the amount granted, but I understand that it was close to $100,000,000, a serious contribution, for which he and the foundation deserve a great deal of praise.

There is another way that “lesser” individuals may help though. In addition to existing paths to contribute (American Library Association foundation, and Friends of local libraries), I propose to establish a “Cooperative Library Fund” to solicit, accept, collect, and distribute primarily in-kind donations of books, DVD’S, CD’s, and other materials for distribution to individual libraries and branches, and most importantly to central non-walk-in collections served through regional inter-library loan. Volunteers could go door-to-door in communities, collecting funds and materials from individuals’ private collections.

The in-kind path accomplishes two objectives.

First, for those of us attempting to simplify (see last week’s blog theme), it allows us to relieve ourselves of clutter. There are only few books that I read more than once or twice, that I would need to retain in my household collection. Similarly for films, audiobooks, CD’s. One of my greatest personal gifts that I can give to another, or to the public, is to turn them on to a book or movie that I’ve loved. I derive no real value from hoarding it.

Secondly, it allows public libraries to house more complete and desirable collections in their local stacks, and facilitates an enormous depth of materials when housed in central accessible collections available through inter-library loan. The materials would be near the hub of inter-library loan systems, and then much less expensive to handle than when inter-library loan requests are submitted to small manual local libraries. $ funds can then be spent on more current and specific custom additions to local collections.

The jewel of the library idea itself (individual access to a collection) is served. (Other entities utilize the same concept. Netflix, professional practice libraries, tool cooperatives even). And the jewel of free public library idea itself is served. (Citizenship enhancement). And, a new jewel adding onto the shoulders of giants is potentially served (library as primary community institution).

Its doable.

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The United States is in many ways a very passive nation. Politically, although there are many that demonstrate and now organize in ways on the web, as a civilization we delegate a great deal to elected and business leaders.

Economically, there is not as much small business entrepreneurship as is suggested by the talking heads on Fox News. The vast majority of our commerce is done with large corporations.

And more importantly, relative to libraries, we delegate a great deal of decision-making and even discussion to public officials (elected and appointed).

An example is the current discussion on health care. While the town meeting fracas’ get a lot of press, in my home town there has been woefully little public discussion of the objectives/characteristics sought, or the means suggested to achieve those objectives in proposed legislation or even preliminary discussion.

Americans just don’t bother.

There are many reasons. We are busy. It takes two working adults to provide for most households these days, and in many there is only a single parent. Even where all the adults are working it is difficult to make ends meet. We’re just too tired to read, to think, to discuss, and a bit hopeless.

Also, mass media still is strong and exerts a pacifying influence. We sit and digest from the very limited set of originating “thought” that is presented. Some then go ahead do what they are told, but when peoples’ comments at public meetings are so similar, it confirms an assessment of public intellectual passivity.

At the same time, the proportion of college-educated adults is at the highest that its ever been in US history.

Right now, there is no alternative to passivity. There is no forum for face to face discussion in most communities. Thankfully in the town that I live, there are electoral debates, even for “insignificant” positions, but that is sporadic, and doesn’t suffice to maintain an engaged and informed electorate, a citizenry.

Libraries have a unique and absolutely critical role in enhancing the degree and maturity of citizenship in our communities and nation and world.

They are the primary institution in our society for facilitating adult education. Colleges are oriented towards undergraduate or matriculating studies and do not make it easy for adults to participate. Even community colleges with a strong citizenship mission, are relatively expensive for an adult education class, and somewhat excluding.

Free public libraries offer the two primary means to responsibly and effectively facilitate citizenship in our world. They provide access to source materials and assistance at research. (Talk to our undaunted hero community research librarians, FREE.)

In a library that take seriously its role to facilitate citizenship, there are best-sellers, a few extra pulp novels and films, and most importantly a depth of materials on social issues, and aesthetic contribution. Stimulation to think, to discuss, to design, to engage.

The second critical service that libraries provide, that complements its citizenship enhancing role as library collection, is as a regularly available meeting and discussion venue.

In active libraries, the library meeting rooms are the most vibrant discussion venues in their communities. A library that regularly and FREQUENTLY hosts readings, discussion issues, films, music appreciation, etc. is the community center of a community that is buzzing.

In most communities currently, there are very few active discussion venues. Discussion of critical local, regional, national, and global issues, just doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen in religious venues. It doesn’t happen on street corners. It doesn’t happen in many living rooms. And, in too many locales, it doesn’t even happen in libraries.

And, as a result of no discussion, bad decisions are made, and no one is subsequently watching or counseling. Members of communities end up with little contact with each other. “I don’t care” ends up as the characteristic of formal citizenship. (Citizenship that dares the question of whether it is worth the name.)

While there is no guarantee that the citizenry of any community is going to rise to the opportunity that the excellent libraries in our communities provide, the absence of the option would compel our mediocrity.

To summarize, to my mind, libraries are the most critical institution in modern society that effects the degree and character of citizenship in our communities. That’s the role they’ve served in my life, and I am not alone.

I personally want to help. I want to help libraries raise money and in-kind materials for their collections. I want to help libraries utilize their meeting room potential with local and regional presentation, lecture and discussion. I want to publicize libraries’ prospective and realized role in our society.

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Public libraries are better than sliced bread.

This post is more than an appreciation post.

One of the great challenges of modern media is how to preserve the media distribution business and process in a way that is functional and allows writers, artists and others to justify their considerable time invested, to actually make a living from their craft.

With the advent of the internet itself, and further, with the ease of copying and distributing media, and the presence of already free media sites (Youtube), the media world has CHANGED.

The newspaper business in particular is in a state of upheaval and has been for decades, with the internet serving as the last very heavy straw.

There are companies that are able to establish gates to use of media, that preserve or even enhance their ability to earn revenue. The Wall Street Journal for example never went to a free distribution status, like say the New York Times. (That is consistent with their prior business model anyway though, with the NY Times surviving by advertising primarily, while the Wall Street Journal survived by subscriptions.) New revenue-generating media paths include Netflix (now streaming and downloading) or Audible in the audiobook world.

The previous era’s media model was of highly produced, highly invested, star orientation. There are only 50 or so independant prime time TV slots, maybe 100 if you include more specialized but still widely watched cable shows, including documentaries. They have very high costs of production, and therefore must sell MANY copies and/or views to recoup their investment.

In the documentary world, there are thousands of programs produced, driven by individuals’ passions and creative sensivitivity. Production costs are a small fraction of what documentary production costs were even a decade ago, with the advent of inexpensive but high-quality cameras, hard-disk recording potential now, and inexpensive but also high-quality post-production and DVD authoring software.

The star system is breaking down to an extent, but right now only enough to be threatening, not enough to break the back yet. Similar in status to the automobile industry. It still hobbles along, though doesn’t make rational sense to continue its habitual business model and structure.

On the documentarian and intelligentsia side, academia (some post-academia think tanks) is the name of the game. Intellectuals teach now, more than they publish for non-academic consumption. They don’t as a rule now write for newspapers from a range of perspectives, nor for intellectually oriented magazines. A few stars still do.

So, where do libraries fit in. Historically, libraries’ role was validated by the concept of “informed citizenry”. Prior to the contributions of Andrew Carnegie (ironically), libraries were somewhat marginal institutions, considered subversive. Their presence was promoted by the same groups that encouraged literacy, including among blacks, women, immigrants, Indians, workers.

Upon Andrew Carnegie’s retirement, he funded and championed libraries and literacy as a long-term investment in economy and citizenship. Carnegie never adopted the subversive ideas of literacy advocates, but instead normalized them. That Andrew Carnegie built and endorsed libraries changed how they were perceived and their social role.

But, libraries were still always positively subversive in fact, their existence and social role. They were free from fees, and free in availability (notwithstanding Jim Crow like legal segregation in siting). They were great equalizers. Great black novelists Richard Ellison, James Baldwin and Richard Wright publicly endorsed public libraries as critical to their self-education, and mentioned their equalizing influences in their novels periodically.

Over time, many libraries devolved from their role as facilitating an educated citizenship, to more an alternative mass media distribution path.

I love it. I don’t use Netflix or video rentals anymore. I use interlibrary loan from the public library. I listen to literally thousands of recordings, all from the library. But, I still understand it as partially a distraction from libraries’ critical mission/role.

And, in that light, I suggest that free public libraries can serve that critical role more effectively than any other institution in the modern world, of facilitating responsible and empowered citizenship.

Because of libraries’ potentially subversive role, they have historically “lied low”, avoiding attention and avoiding contention. That a few individuals like me get our entertainment from public libraries is not a big deal. Its not like “everybody did it”.

At times when individual libraries have extended themselves publicly beyond their sanctioned marginal role, there have been periodic punitive reactions by publishers, and even by lawmakers.

Libraries funding currently comes primarily from municipalities, and some from foundation and government grants, but those are usually for specified uses (like the Gates Foundation grants for digital equipment. Definitely a great help, but was that a grant, or advertising, product placement?)

So, they lie low.

I think they should speak up. I know the typical image of a librarian is not as a fighter, but more of a reclusive. It isn’t true. Most librarians regard their work as a particularly effective social service and are highly motivated to assert that. They are also woefully underpaid. (And, libraries are also not subject to the market’s pressures for competitive efficiency. I personally wish they were more efficient.)

I believe that if libraries were empowered with significant funding, that they could become the primary means for the non-star, but still extremely worthwhile, tier of substantive media material.

There are 30,000 library branches in the country. If 1/10th committed to purchase intelligent material published enhancing the citizenship role, that would average 3000 units of a film run, or a publishing run, a long way towards justifying investment in a publication. It would provide important work for intellectuals, artists, documentarians/journalists in particular, equalized by merit of their content, more than by glitz.

Another prospective library publishing approach is to pre-fund media or publishing specifically for library distribution first, then market distribution later for those that want to privately own a production or publication.

They would be subversive institutions in the positive real meaning of the term, stimulating discussion, rather than just an irritating sliver loss of revenues on best-sellers.

More during the week.

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