My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:
A little spat over debt between the West Bend library and the city of West Bend, of which the library is a part, has been resolved, but it begs us to confront some broader questions.
At issue was an old debt. Thanks in part to generous donations from individuals, the West Bend library undertook a major expansion project at the turn of the millennium. But as is always the case with projects of this sort, the taxpayers were not left completely off the hook. Part of the project was financed through debt that Washington County and the city of West Bend agreed to pay back.
For almost two decades, Washington County has been paying roughly $100,000 to the city of West Bend and the city put in about $150,000 to pay off the debt.
The process was a bit convoluted. Since the library is an entity of the city and the city managed the debt, the process was set up so that the county would pay the city; then the city would allocate the funds to the library; then the library board would authorize the same funds to be sent back to the city for the service of the debt. As some point, someone at the city decided that such a process was convoluted and the city just bypassed allocating the money to the library.
The squabble over it arose last year when the Library Board decided that its prerogative was being violated because it should authorize payment to the city. In trying to unravel all of this, it was found that there was very little documentation to back up any of these agreements — including the term for paying off the debt. Since the process was all part of the internal workings of the city and the Common Council decided all of this in closed session over 15 years ago, nobody perceived a need for rigorous documentation.
Since nobody could tell any different, the library and the city agreed last week that they would consider the debt fully repaid in two years, at which time the money the county and the city allocate to the library every year for this purpose would be banked for capital projects.
This invites the question, what might those capital projects be? Would it be a wise expenditure of tax dollars to expand or renovate of the library?
And in the digital age, do the taxpayers really need to spend money on a traditional library at all? In the past, libraries served a critical function to diffuse knowledge into a community. Books were expensive and most homes rarely contained more than a Bible and a handful of other books. We relied on libraries to provide a window to the past and to the wider world.
The internet has changed almost everything in our society and libraries are not immune.
Now people can access billions of books, magazines, newspapers, pictures, films, recordings, and other media in hundreds of different languages within seconds. The internet did not just open the window. The internet has torn it off its hinges and kicked down the wall to provide a panoramic view.
As a lifelong bibliophile, I love libraries. I love bookstores too. Despite also being a technophile, I vastly prefer browsing a dusty row of books or paging through the dog-eared pages of a good book to the glow of a screen.
But I can get the same knowledge from a tablet and it is difficult for me to justify the taxpayers paying for preference of reading format.
The taxpayers currently spend about $1.4 million per year on the library and the Library Board expects some major capital needs within a few years. To put that in perspective, it would only cost about $1.34 million per year to provide each of the roughly 13,500 households in West Bend with a subscription to Amazon Prime with access to far more information than the library could ever hold. While that probably is not the best alternative, there are certainly many alternatives to the traditional library model that would cost far less.
The mission of the West Bend library is, “to be a lifelong learning resource by providing quality services, resources, and learning opportunities through a variety of formats to meet informational, educational, cultural and recreational needs of the community.”
With the world changing around us, it is prudent to consider if there are other means by which the library can accomplish its mission.