Ignoring the hyperlocalness of an issue

Full disclosure: I love libraries and they been a big part of my life through childhood. So, it’s hard for me not to find fault in Fox News Chicago’s story “Are Libraries Necessary, or a Waste of Tax Money?” simply on the grounds that it questions the relevance of libraries.

Both the state and many Chicago-area municipalities are facing severe budget problems, so it’s a legitimate role of the press to ask tough questions about how the government spends its money, even though there seems to be some issues with the framing and the balance between information and provocation in this particular report. In the context of this independent study, however, I want to look at how this report fails to acknowledge that libraries (in function and to a lesser extent funding) are local institutions and that what libraries look like and whether their benefits outweigh their costs may vary dramatically between communities.  Given that structure, it’s important to report on libraries as a more local issue or take great caution when reporting about them more generally.

“With cash-strapped states behind on so many bills, it’s quietly, and not so quietly, being debated,” the report begins.  The web version of the story identifies it as part of a special report on the Illinois Budget Crisis.  The story goes on to explain that 2.5 percent of property taxes go to fund libraries, but perhaps makes the assumption that all the viewers understand that property taxes fund local government infrastructure like libraries or public schools and that these funds are largely independent of state money.

The Chicago Public Library 2009 annual report shows that over $92 million of the library’s revenue came from the City of Chicago while around $8.4 million came from the State of Illinois.  Illinois Governor Pat Quinn’s proposed fiscal year 2011 budget recommends about $19.5 million in general fund grants for libraries, down from over $27 million in fiscal year 2009.  So, the elimination of libraries has a much more profound direct impact on local budgets than the state budget.  So, a more appropriate framing for the story would be whether a given municipality should reduce funding for their library system.  Or, the report should draw any link between reducing local budget expenditures to reducing state budget expenditures.

The report included a debate with Jim Tobin, president of National Taxpayers United of Illinois, weighing in on the side of reducing library funding, at least through property taxes.  One of his arguments for de-funding libraries is that new technologies (first lower-cost paperback books and now the Internet) are making libraries obsolete.  Again, the framing of the story doesn’t acknowledge that the role and value of libraries may differ, not just from library system to library system but from neighborhood to neighborhood.

According to a report released in July 2009 by the City of Chicago Department of Innovation and Technology, one-third of Chicago residents used Internet access at a public library.  The same report cited that one-third of these users cited lack of computer at home as a reason for accessing it at a library.  However, library Internet use is not distributed evenly across Chicago’s population.  Young people and African Americans are more likely to use the Internet at a public library.  Furthermore, as this map from the report shows,  residents of some areas are more likely to use the Internet at the library than others.

Library Internet Use by Chicago Community Area from Digital Excellence in Chicago: A Citywide View of Technology Use.

So, while the rise of the Internet as an information source may make libraries less relevent (and funding-worthy) in some communities, it may make their relevence greater for others.  I feel a more useful framing of the story, taking into account this and other differences in the role of library resources for  different communities, could be to ask, “does this neighborhood need a public library?”  or “how do we  best use library funds?”