Replace libraries with Amazon? No, we must pay to keep them public

Pierce County libraries are welcoming spaces, with 2 million annual visits.
Pierce County libraries are welcoming spaces, with 2 million annual visits. phaley@thenewstribune.com

A few months ago, an outrageous opinion piece turned up in Forbes magazine’s online edition. The premise: America should replace public libraries with Amazon brick-and-mortar bookstores.

“The move would save taxpayers money and enhance the stockholder value of Amazon all in one fell swoop,” wrote Panos Mourdoukoutas, an economics professor at Long Island University. He contended that Starbucks and Netflix were fine substitutes for other traditional library functions.

The response, translated into today’s social-media parlance, was basically, “WTF?”

The backlash was so strong, the op-ed was quickly taken down from the Forbes website; it now lives in exile on a faraway digital cloud.

But the adverse reaction proved one thing: Americans love their libraries.

Even at a time when the country has smartphone fever, library circulation, program participation and foot traffic have increased. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, half of all Americans use a public library.

And yet local libraries, including the 20-branch system in Pierce County, are struggling.

This fall, Pierce County voters will be asked to come to the rescue by raising the library tax rate for the first time in a dozen years. We hope they don’t hesitate to mark yes on the levy lid lift proposal.

Consider it a promising sign that nobody even submitted an opposition statement for the voters pamphlet.

If approved, Proposition 1 would let the library district restore its property tax levy rate to its fully authorized level of 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. The owner of a home assessed at $320,000 could expect a $32 increase in 2019 property taxes.

Keep in mind, federal and state governments don’t pay a dime toward sustainable library services. Sure, local libraries receive some grants, but they’re not dependable over time.

Since voters approved the last tax hike in 2006 — a lid lift designed to to be revisited after six years, but which lasted twice as long — the cost to operate and maintain branches has gone up 4 to 7 percent a year.

Library System Executive Director Georgia Lomax told the TNT Editorial Board last week that since 2009, the system has been crippled with a shortfall to the tune of $2 million a year.

As a result, library leaders had to make difficult decisions: Staffing levels went flat and in some cases shrunk; facility investments and software system and technological upgrades were deferred; and the bookmobile and video streaming services were eliminated altogether.

In 2017, Pierce County Library System spent less on books and materials per person in the district than any other like-size library in the region. King County Library System budgeted $10.03 per capita; this year our system will spend $5.91 per capita.

Should Proposition 1 pass, the new revenue won’t pay for longer hours or new capital projects, though it will fund some overdue maintenance issues. In the next five years, 15 of 20 library buildings are due for roofs, carpet and other upgrades. The new funding also would allow the system to keep providing the services 600,000 patrons have come to rely on.

If the measure doesn’t pass, two or three branches could close, the county will have to make staff reductions, and the materials and book budget will be reduced 20 percent.

In the last ten years the system has seen a 63 percent surge in card holders. Last year, more than 100,000 folks attended cross-generational classes and events, computer use skyrocketed 44 percent and people connected to library wifi over 2 million times.

And then there’s the part more difficult to quantify, the stuff about libraries being the heartbeat of several local communities, a dynamic blend of City Hall, job-training center and homework hangout.

They practice good faith every day, and they give your kids a safe place for intellectual nourishment during those long weeks of summer. Or a teachers’ strike.

Starbucks, Amazon and Netflix offer comfort and/or convenience, but their bottom line is their bottom line. A library is guided by a whole different rudder. Community well-being is the reason for keeping the lights on, and this fall, we can help them do just that.