“They Still Have Libraries? Give Everybody an iPad.”

This article was featured on Drudge today (do you really have to hat tip Drudge anymore?). It is about the library staff all mad at Mayor Rahm for cutting the budget to the libraries.

In the comments, one guy (I think smartly) said the title of this post.

I think he is partially right. The new Kindle Fire (which I have an order in for and will review when it gets to me sometime later this month) is only $199. The cheap Kindles are only $79 now. Kindles come with tens of thousands of free titles of classic books that everyone should be reading anyways. That is the most exciting part of getting a Kindle Fire for me, the ability to have this immense database at my fingertips, for free (after the initial cost).

I imagine if you took the list of “frequent flyers” who actually USE the library (not just hang out there, I mean those who really check out books and return them) and bought them ALL Kindles for $79, or even the nice new version for $199, that you would be WAY ahead of the budget it costs to run all of those brick and mortar relics, the staff, and all the rest.

This way, a library would still be partially subsidized, but part user fee as well (if you don’t like the classic titles, buy your own), so folks like me, who haven’t set foot in a real life library in decades would perhaps feel a bit better about paying for libraries.

17 thoughts on ““They Still Have Libraries? Give Everybody an iPad.””

  1. I love libraries, even now when there’s so much information available electronically. But just because I love something doesn’t mean it should be involuntarily supplied by my neighbors.

    I think really libraries should be membership clubs supported by people like me and open to the public if the members vote to have it so. Charitable foundations could form their own libraries or subscribe to libraries on behalf of the indigent or in order to support voting to be public.

    An interim step would be reducing library foot prints to a couple of will call shelves and 10 or 12 computers set up to access the web and make reserve requests for books from the library collection. The “stacks” could be basically a climate controlled warehouse. Costs would be dramatically reduced.

    I wonder if something like NetFlicks could work for books?

  2. You take an overly simplistic approach. While you could certainly offer a lot of out-of-copyright public-domain material that way, you wouldn’t get what a quality library system offers. There is reasonable access to new and timely material such as best-sellers. There is research material both in books and periodicals. There is professional assistance for research both directly and through bibliographic creation. There is recorded audio and video material. There is computer access not only to open Internet sources but also to subscription databases.

    The tradition of free public libraries dates back to Franklin and Jefferson in this country. It was enhanced through the philanthropic efforts of Andrew Carnegie who funded and built literally hundreds of libraries across the country.

    When we forget what libraries are about, we are well down the path to endarkenment. But, then that does describes Chicago, doesn’t it?

    This from a career military retiree and fighter pilot, born and raised in Chicago (IIT Class of ’64), and who served the Board of Trustees of Pikes Peak Library District (Colorado Springs CO) for ten years.

    The Kindle or e-reader as a delivery medium may be viable, but the library is still going to be in the picture.

  3. Ed – you are sort of making my point in an odd way. While you make points about what I can get at a library, I don’t see why I should spend the gas money and time to actually go there when I can get this content delivered via wireless (Kindle/Amazon in my example) in the comfort of my house or office at a very low cost. The overhead of staff and the basic upkeep of these buildings is immense.

    I own my own business and am on the ‘tubes probably more than most during my working day but I haven’t even thought about going to a library in decades. I just don’t see how it is worth my time when a good ‘ol internet connection will do, and $25 gets free freight from Amazon for books.

    I just bought a huge used book from Amazon for $5 delivered ($1.40 plus freight of $3). I guarantee it would have cost me more than that in gas to go to the library (which probably would not have had this old volume) and check it out (then I have to take it back).

    Recorded audio and video material? I don’t have enough hours in the day as it is to watch what I want on YouTube and the million of other internet based music/content radio stations.

    You have good points, I am just saying that there must be a much more efficient delivery method in this day and age than people coming to a building in a certain place. And how many people really use the library? I would be interested if you could share how many regular users you had vs. the budget you had to see if my proposal of buying everyone Kindles (or some other reader) would be feasible.

    Thanks for your service in the military.

  4. Here is one small example. In Fitchburg, WI a library was recently constructed at a cost of $14mm. The population of Fitchburg is 20,501 (2000 census) giving a cost per person of $682.89. Annual maintenance is $1.8mm, $87.80 per person. For the maintenance alone the city could have purchased a Kindle for each and every man, woman and child and had money left over.

  5. Well, for scholarship you still need the databases and then there are the rare libraries with manuscripts, etc. We need librarians more than we need brick and mortar. Our students are pretty much told that everything is available on-line – but it is library-based on-line. As for books – I always order used and generally hardback – and they are often cheaper. It is somewhat disturbing to see, say, the newest biography of Longfellow coming cheap & used from Amazon with a Harvard library markings, even though the book may be only a couple of years old. EBSCO wanted to put the journal my husband edits on years ago, but the board kept hesitating, feeling they’d lose some subscribers. But, of course, they have to subsidize it as it is – a scholarly journal for a small audience isn’t going to make money, what it wants is to keep up the dialogue and if lucky make an impact. That is best done on-line these days. (Not that literary journals have ever been that popular – look at the ones that Poe managed and how quickly they went under.)

  6. Dan, I look forward to your review of the Fire…..FYI my 17 year old loves going to the library and uses the tools there very well. As a taxpayer, I wish the other dynamics (subsidiaries???) of government worked as well as my local library does.

  7. Dan, consider the staff who works in the library (or, rather, a can of worms) – their life is not sugary!

    Also, here’s Miriam’s opinion on public library expense:

    The cost of running a library is a very small part of any governing body’s budget, unlike the exorbitant amount they give to schools.

    The benefit of the library is that you can find things there that you didn’t know you were looking for. My husband came from a working class family. He went to the library and read books about Greek mythology which you are never going to find a a Kindle.

    These electronic aids are cutting down people’s choices. Soon everybody in the nation will be reading The DaVinci code, or its equivalent.

    Considering the low quality of public education, providing an alternate venue where people can educate themselves–but don’t have to, it’s not compulsory–makes sense in every possible way.

    The trouble is, library users are not unionized, therefore they are powerless. There is no-one to speak for them.

  8. The problem with the iPad route is that the pay-model of a library doesn’t really translate to online.

    Libraries buy individuals copies of works and loan them out such that each copy is only being read by one person at one time. This works because although many people share books through libraries, the majority is sold to individuals. Few publisher can survive just on library sales. In effect, individual sells indirectly subsidize libraries.

    The is no innate enforcement of sharing with digital media because all digital technology requires that a work be copied before it can be read (you are not now reading this web page, you are reading a copy your web browser created.)

    To make an online library work, you would need to somehow restrict the number of copies of the “book” that the library patrons could “check out” at any given time. Or you would need a system in which content providers by access from a common library fund based on access.

    I belong to Safari books online which is essentially a for-pay online library that specializes in technical computer related books and media. I pay a flat monthly fee and in return I have unrestricted access to several thousand technical books. I can download PDFs of a dozen or so chapters a month. It works well, especially for technical books which are often approaching obsolescence by the time they make print.

    It might be possible to make an on-line free library work something the same way. Communities could provide everyone with an account that they could use on line in lieu of going to a physical library.

  9. We love the Dallas (Tx) main library. Mostly for the monthly sale of culled books.

    As for the collection — it’s museum quality. Which model (museum) is likely the fate of the “lending library” in the near future.

  10. My name is John and I am a bookaholic. Learning to read was a gateway drug.

    I am so addicted to reading that I will cheerfully support closing non-performing schools and spend the money on public libraries. Fire a few cops if necessary. Reduce the administrative staff at City Hall. I don’t care as money spent on libraries is likely the better exchange.

    I’m at the library every week, taking out five or six books. Many of these books are not available on Kindle. The newest releases, of which my library system gets a thousand or so per month, might be available for Kindle, but at a cost substantially higher than the minute portion of taxes I pay to access those titles at the library. Older books, not yet in the public domain, are not available on Kindle unless they’re mega-bestsellers. Academic books aren’t available for Kindle, at least not the ones I’m interested in, and I’m not spending $150 for a single volume that I won’t read again. Yes, physical books take up expensive shelf space, but it’s not that expensive.

    Sure, I can go to iTunes and buy albums relatively cheaply, but not as cheap as the albums my library lets me borrow. Same with Netflix and the video materials.

    My county has eight libraries. Due to budget cuts, all are now closed on Fridays and Sundays; two sites used to be open on those days. That’s tough for the librarians who are taking pay cuts or at least not racking up overtime, but it’s not the end of the world for the consumer. It’s just a bit less convenient.

    Libraries have fed my mind and my soul since I first learned to read. I actually cannot afford to support my reading habit if I have to buy, even for a few dollars, everything I read.

    So, I’ll thanks all the taxpayers for helping to subsidizing my addiction.

  11. For Fiscal 2009 NYPL budget was $273 million. This would include the whole system for the Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island Books circulated 22 million, and attendance 18 million-the latter number has to be a guess. This doesn’t come cheap, does it? Since I am royally ripped by NY taxes, I do take satisfaction from at least getting something very useful from this.
    By the way Brooklyn and Queens have their own systems,but anything borrowed there would have to be returned there.

  12. so you want the government to buy everyone kindle fires because you “imagine” this would be cheaper than maintaining a library; but you don’t actually give any data to support his imagination.

    Well let me give you some data:

    Let’s keep this simple, there are 2.7 million people in Chicago. Simple math here. $79 for a kindle times 2.7 million people – so $213 million dollars; the Chicago public library budget is $106 million.

    So that’s your plan? To increase the budget to at least double while at the same time pushing a public service into the private sector.

    You must really love making reasonable folks blood boil.

  13. It is jokingly said that I was frightened by a library as a child, because I have been collecting books ever since. At last count over 10 years ago, we had over 4000 volumes in our home NOT counting what I call my “working library” of reference books I use in my writing. When my daughter was in high school, she and her friends were the top of their class. For anything involving history, basic science, or politics …. they came to our house instead of the school or public library.

    I am kind of like Tolkien’s dragon Smaug atop his hoard of gold; except I do books. Being a hoarder, I have another appreciation that has not been mentioned here.

    Kindles are dependent upon the continued functioning of a technology that may not always be there. Power, internet or wifi connectivity, etc. are NOT something that can be depended upon in these days; due to either temporary or longer term interruptions. My books do not care if the internet is functioning or not. They and the information they contain remain. And some of that information may be quite helpful in those times. Libraries have a similar advantage.

    If I get an eReader in the future as a supplement, it will be a Nook and not a Kindle, because Kindle retains ownership of everything on their machine and proved it by deleting purchased works from all Kindles over a copyright dispute. If I buy a book, it is mine.

    In my town, we are having an election to rebuild our library. The 1890’s Carnegie Library is still in good shape, but the addition they put on a few decades ago is literally falling apart. The bond issue is likely to pass, but the Kindle idea was raised in the newspaper. The response was overwhelming negative. A goodly chunk of the opinion was related to the role of the library as a center of the community. This is a factor that does not obtain in a metropolis like Chicago; which is more like a SERE course than a community, but for cities of less than 100,000 or so that is on point.

    Subotai Bahadur

  14. @Joel – I see you didn’t read the rest of the comments in this thread where I show that in a different community, you actually could buy a Kindle for each and every person and have money left over just from the maintenance ALONE of the buildings for one year.

    That said, are you trying to tell me that each and every person in the city of Chicago used (and by used, I don’t mean hang out there, I mean actually checking out books, reading them and returning them) the public library system?

    Lets say that half do (they don’t but lets just say they do). 1.35mm people x $79 = $106m. The budget for just one year of operating the library system. And I am sure you could cut a deal to get the Kindles for FAR less than the $79 list just so Amazon could get them into the hands of so many people.

    But others raise great points in the comments. I think this will call for a follow up post.

  15. I’m mostly a lurker here and have never commented before, but I thought I’d chip in my two cents about libraries. I am a frequent library user (about once a week) even though I have to drive about 30 minutes to get to our small branch library.

    The library is a HUGE part of the lives of my children. I have a Nook, but not one of my young children is interested in being read a story off an electronic reader. How would I get my kids interested in reading at a young age without those interesting and beautifully illustrated children’s books? I could never afford to purchase them, not in the numbers that would satisfy my children’s voracious appetites for reading. I feel that my community is helping plant the seeds for a lifetime love of reading in my children.

    Public education is in dire trouble, and I don’t think that cutting off access to physical copies of books is going to help that. Certainly not for a mother of five trying to fill in the holes on her own!

  16. Dan, because you asked, the Pikes Peak Library District served the greater Colorado Springs area. About 600,000 persons. We were an independent district with our own ad valorem taxiing authority (max of 4 mils by state law). Our annual budget was approx $16M. We had two main libraries and twelve branches plus two book-mobiles. The collection amounted to 1.1 million items. We employed 135 persons.

    The average cost per item circulated was around 75 cents. We ran numerous book clubs, historic presentations, an annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering, the Crayola Corp “Imagination Celebration” and loads of children’s programs.

    You are very correct about shifting delivery models. The e-reader is going to be significant and systems of electronic delivery are going to play hugely.

    And having written three books myself, I also am aware of the consideration for author royalties fitting into this scenario.

    Bottom line is avid readers can very easily outstrip a personal budget. Libraries enable them to expand their knowledge without that concern.

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