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Consider the alternative to a public library in Wichita

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As Wichita considers the need for a new public library, a more central and fundamental question goes unconsidered: what is the role of the public library today, and do we really want one?

Consider the difference between public and private institutions. The public institution has to satisfy only a small group of people, namely the politicians that fund it. Yes, once in a while voters get to select the politicians, but issues such as a library are usually far down the list of important topics, notwithstanding a recent Wichita Eagle editorial promoting a public library as “one of the most important cultural institutions in a community. It’s an investment in our future, a symbol of our values and aspirations.”

Private institutions, or businesses, on the other hand, are voted on every day by customers, who choose one over the other for their own personal reasons. This is the idea of “consumer sovereignty.”

Public institutions, open to all, appeal to few in the end. The problem caused by unwanted “customers” at the central library is well known, and must serve to decrease its usage by some large amount.

Reading the 2006 annual report of the library, it appears that 34% of the loans made at the central branch were art, music, and video. (Due to the way the library presented the figures, I couldn’t determine this number for the branches.) Disregarding the presumably small number of artworks loaned (in comparison to the number of DVDs), the library is competing with services provided by the free market, namely video rental stores.

Even the loaning of books competes with bookstores. The library reports tells us that the value of the books the library circulated — that is, what it would cost if each person who borrowed a book had bought the book instead — is $29,068,288. I am tempted to ask what the City of Wichita has against local bookstore owners. But the reality is that the library competes rather poorly with bookstores. It has been many years since I relied on the library for timely books in my field, computers and software engineering. I found the shelves filled with titles referring to software and computers long out of date.

Today, if you want to borrow a recently-released book, especially a bestseller, you are likely to find yourself waiting in line behind dozens of borrowers, each with up to two weeks to use the book. This makes buying the book an attractive alternative, which is often what I do.

If you want to read a classic, good luck to you. I wanted to read Capitalism and Freedom, one of Time Magazine’s 100 most important books published since World War II. But, the library didn’t own it.

Could a privately-owned library be what Wichita needs? Could it do a better job? How would such a library work?

As it turns out, I can’t find an example of a city with a private library. That alone doesn’t mean a private library couldn’t work. It is, I believe, more a symptom of our increasing reliance on government instead of private solutions.

There are many ways a private library could work. Patrons might be charged a small admission fee. Patrons might buy monthly or annual memberships for unlimited use. There might be a fee for checking out items, perhaps based on the newness or popularity of the item and the length of the loan period. Items might carry advertising. Meeting rooms and other services could carry rental fees.

The point is that the library would be directly accountable to its customers who use the library, instead of a governing board, the city council, and the “public,” whoever that is. The library, wishing to earn a profit for its owners, would have strong motivation to provide services that people are willing to actually pay for. It would be free to act on its own to raise capital and provide these services, instead of complaining about the lack of funding, which is the case with the current library, as with nearly all other cultural institutions, too.

Plans for new libraries call for coffee shops in the mode of Starbucks. Will the refreshments served be free? Of course not. So charging for some services is okay, it seems.

What about people who can’t afford even the small fees a private library might charge? We are all already paying these fees now in the form of taxes. We are already paying for a library, both those who use it and those who don’t. Spreading out the costs over everyone doesn’t make it more affordable for the town as a whole. As Thomas Sowell recently wrote: “This was all before politicians gave us the idea that the things we could not afford individually we could somehow afford collectively through the magic of government.”

I wish that the Wichta Eagle editorial board would consider the alternative to government provision of things like libraries, entertainment facilities, airports, arts and culture, schools, and many other aspects of life. Relying on coercive government action over individual and voluntary group initiative makes us less free as a country and city.

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