Boots & Sabers

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0842, 17 Jan 17

Considering our library and its debt

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.


0842, 17 January 2017


  1. Kevin Scheunemann

    Well said.

    The interesting part is, there always seems to be a group of citizens in each community that can fund library expansion in private.

    Even if a community can fund library expansion and capital improvements through private resources, is it the job of the community to continue to fund, through scarce public resources, a library operation… even though it exists as the horse and buggy in the age of automobiles?

    In other words, are we just funding a museum of the past?

    It will take state law change for municipalities to be able to decide freely to stop funding the museums of the past.   Some museums may be worth funding, some may not.

  2. jimspice

    You really need to check into this nutjob. He sounds dangerous.

    “You can go to hell as far as I am concerned. He is not my president. And you can take this country and shove it where the sun don’t shine. Screw you. You are not my fellow countryman as far as I am concerned. I want nothing to do with your damn country.

    I don’t hope for his success. In fact, I seriously hope this country gets attacked by terrorists over and over again and every possible bad thing that can happen does happen … to people like you.If I had the money, I’d put a bounty on his melon. Seriously.”


  3. ChrisJenkinsWB

    As President of the West Bend Library Board for the 3 terms that I was, I can tell you the Library has made some progress towards this goal. But there is still a fixed status quo among some who see the Library as always being the same.

    Fellow Board member and I, JC Callen, always joke about the Blue Books on the 2nd floor from 1960-something that have accumulated dust for years just taking up space. We need to change and adapt the Library, if it is still going to exist, as a technology-based, community center. When we look at our Library’s statistics we see that physical book checkouts go down, but e-books, programming of every kind, and growing popularity in “makers spaces” and the like have increased year after year. This is a trend that is going to catch up with us, and the allocated funding will go with it- as it should.

    If Libraries, like ours, want to stay relavant to those in my generation and beyond, it will need to change, and funding-means/legislation will need to change with it.

    I appreciate your analysis Owen.

  4. penquin

    “Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.” ― Walter Cronkite

    Problem with going completely digital is that everything gets lost when tech is upgraded. We can still see today, for ourselves, words that were written over a 1000 years ago – how do you think people a 1000 years from now are gonna “read” our flash drives and compact discs?

    Great societies throughout history have always had libraries – is America no longer considered “great”?


  5. Owen

    Couple things… First, at no time did I suggest doing away with the library. I am advocating being smart about it. There are alternate ways to fulfilling the mission of the library to the same format we used in the 1950s.

    Second, it is ridiculous to compare the Library of Congress or one of the great libraries that preserve mankind’s legacy to a community library in West Bend, Wisconsin. They serve entirely different purposes.

  6. penquin

    When you asked if we need to spend “any” money at all on a library, it seemed that you were questioning if we should get rid of it or not.

    Also should note: Amazon Prime doesn’t give access to all the books, magazines, etc, that the most public libraries have. (I don’t use the kindle part of that service, but isn’t it only one free book a month?) And given the state of internet access across our state, an on-line library wouldn’t be of good service to many folks.

    And all libraries, regardless of size, are capable of preserving our legacy. Despite the destruction of the Great Library in Alexandria, we still have some writings from that era ’cause it wasn’t the only library…(just the best). If (heaven forbid) our major cities get nuked, the small town libraries may be all that’s left.

  7. penquin

    PS – Please pardon my misuse of quote marks. You didn’t say “any”, rather “at all”.

  8. Owen

    This is the operative sentence, “While that probably is not the best alternative, there are certainly many alternatives to the traditional library model that would cost far less.”


  9. penquin

    Thanks for clearing up your position Owen. I’m good with going libertarian on some issues….just never go full libertarian.

    (and for some reason, I now can’t stop saying “Libertarian Librarian” to myself…try it! It rolls nicely off the tongue.)


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