Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Library Unscience

In palmier days, the Indianapolis public library system spent like a drunken sailor, turning the old Central Library building into nothing more than an anteroom for a huge (and, IMO, hugely ugly) chrome-plated Brutalist nightmare. Naturally, they got ripped off; substandard concrete work in the parking garage -- oh, and it's the foundation, too -- put the project vastly over budget and behind schedule; as far as I can figure out, neither the blame, who's to pay or that pesky little actual problem has ever been entirely resolved. Taxpayers are on the hook for it and it may yet sink under Downtown's reclaimed swamplands like Atlantis into the sea.

But that was yesterday or last year; maybe the year before. Today, the headline is, "Library system never has had 'cutback like this.'" The grasshopper, having fiddled away the long financial summer on money looted from you and me, is startin' to freeze.* Maybe they can find some gullible type to unload that shiny white elephant on, at ten cents on a dollar? Or it can starve back to something human-scaled, a library with less emphasis on Architecture outside of the 720 section and more on, y'know, books and other media.

Don't hold your breath; among other efforts, they will be cutting back spending on books by a million dollars next year -- and they are asking approval for a property tax shortfall appeal: a tax increase, a way of sneaking around Indiana's property tax caps.

Public libraries: too many are no longer about books or the citizens who use the library but about institutional aggrandizement. Maybe it is time they went away; or at least the big ones did. We'd all be better off if the functions of day-shelter for bums, cheap Internet access and lending books were split up!
* The present Wikipedia gloss on the fable to which I've alluded, you would not believe.


Tam said...

Yeah, let the bums get their free Wi-Fi from McDonald's like the rest of us!

Anonymous said...

Uh Oh. Breda's gonna be mad...


Drang said...

The King County (WA) library system was once seen as the poorer cousin of the Seattle Library, which condescended to agree to a sort of reciprocity agreement; now, the KCLS has put up branches all over non-Seattle, has a highly efficient system for the reservation and lending of books all over the county, and is doing very well, whereas the Seattle Library has fallen on hard times, including erecting a huge money pit downtown that is an eyesore, impossible to find anything in; the KCLS has ceased allowing Seattle residents use the interwebz to reserve books, and may drop their access altogether...

Ed Rasimus said...

With ten years on the Board of Trustees of a mid-sized library district (Colorado Springs), I would like to note that public libraries are organized in many different ways. Some are independent districts (mine was) and some are local government subsidiaries under control of city, county or regional governments.

Facilities are usually built through bond issues since major capital investments don't fit into routine budgets. That means voters approve bonded debt. It isn't the responsibility of libraries to propose these grandiose edifices. It is done by the Board which is either elected or appointed by elected officials. So, you can blame citizens for the extravagance.

Linking the palace to the operational budget is not appropriate. Within the annual budget, which is funded by a district property tax usually or by a part of the municipal budget, there is little discretionary spending. Fixed costs for labor and maintenance take up most of it. The only discretionary segment is materials purchase.

That means generally that if you want to keep the doors open when revenue is down, you either cut hours, close facilities, or ask the voters to approve a tax increase.

Libraries generally are chasing technology and expenses in the modern library extend well beyond traditional books. Today there are media materials, etexts, and serious computer expenses necessary to meet the public's needs.

IOW it isn't a simple matter of punish them because I don't like their building.

Drang said...

Indy is beginning to sound like Little Chicago:

Roberta X said...

Who picks up the slack when construction costs hugely overrun the bond issue, Ed? Same bunch that get taxed to run the place: property-owners!

Our local library system is a bloated monstrosity, one that abandons neighborhood libraries to prop up their pet masterpiece, the Central Library. The edifice it occupies -- and the wasteful, shoddy way it was built, not to mention the condescending attitude it embodies -- is part and parcel of the whole mess.

Tam said...

"So, you can blame citizens for the extravagance."

Ed, when you put it like that, we can blame citizens for the whole rotten shootin' match, from Barry O.'s health care plan to Dick Daley's runway remodeling.

Ed Rasimus said...

It looks like the Main Library (built in 1917) has been paid for a long time. The addition at $100M was bonded debt. I'm too lazy to look into cost overruns, but they would be paid for under whatever provisions the construction contract included. That might mean supplemental bonds, operating funds, or some other provision.

Quick scan of library info online indicates that the refinanced twice since the construction and saved roughly $4M at lower interest rates, so someone is doing the numbers crunching.

Of course property owners are going to pay. That is the funding mechanism for the system. Of a $38M annual budget, more than $36M is from real property assessments. But, remember that those are strictly limited by state law (we had the same situation in Colorado). Any increases are subject to voter approval. If you want the services, you have to pay but you get the option to vote against the library.

The news reports seem to indicate that the folks of Marion County squealed pretty loudly when threatened with branch closure options. Looks like last decision was to close the Main library one day a week and reduce hours system wide rather than close branches. That's usually a good choice because when revenues rebound, you still have the facility to return to extended hours.

And, YES Tam! You can blame citizens for decades of poor (and poorly informed) voting choices. But things seem to be looking up.

Anonymous said...

Anyone remember:
Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy:
In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.
Also stated as: any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representative who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.


Anonymous said...

The 100 milion dollar Colts welfare stadium after interest will cost 1 billion dollars. According to radio talk host Abdul Shivas (spelling?) WXNT. I am guessing the 100 million library adds up the same.

Roberta X said...

Anon 4:41: Another case of looted largesse.

Library, stadium, sports teams: if they can't earn enough to pay they way and/or they cannot attract enough freely-given charity, it's time they went away.

Roberta X said...

Bruce, Dr. Pournelle is, as is so often the case, right.