[Our county has a special sales tax to support the library. Every time it comes up for renewal someone suggests alternative methods of financing, including a fee for use. This raises the question - how would you set the fee?]
Imagine if you will a quiet neighborhood in our little town, a street where the trees are taller than the houses. It is evening; the widow O'Malley, poor but honest, is soaking her feet after a long, hard day. She hears a knock at the door and gets up wearily to answer it.
Officer Grady stands on the front porch, hat in hand. He's caught a group of the neighborhood boys spray painting the school. It is going to cost the boys' parents $500 and four hours apiece to clean up the mess. Her son, Danny, normally hangs out with this group, but this afternoon he was at the library, reading about fighter pilots in World War One. The librarian has figured they saved her $67.50, and would like it in cash.
Four years later, Officer Grady is at the door again. Three of the boys Danny knows have broken into a candy store. Danny was at the library, working his history term paper, "Air Power in Europe, 1939 - 1945". He gets an "A" on the paper, and his mother gets a bill for $110.25.
Time passes; more books, more interests, and more trips to the library. One fine day in June young Danny graduates at the top of his class. He's the neighborhood's pride and his mother's joy, with his choice of an appointment to the Air Force Academy or a full scholarship in aeronautical engineering to MIT. His mother's eyes are so full of tears she can barely see as Danny strides up the ramp for his diploma. Officer Grady is sitting right behind her; his eyes are full of tears too, but it's because he's trying to add up the library bill, and the sun is bright.
Can we really put a price on knowledge, on hopes and dreams, on people's future? How much is it worth to see a child's face light up when a librarian brings a favorite story to life with hand puppets and song? Should the library charge more for serious reading, (an adult studying the codes for an electrician's license, for instance) than for frivolous reading (a teen-ager spending a rainy afternoon with Holmes and Dr. Watson, engaged in the scientific pursuit of crime)?
I would argue that we cannot set a price on knowledge, but we can set a price on support for our library; an eighth of a cent is cheap, and one of the best investments the citizens of this county could ever make. A community that turns its back on its library has turned its back on its children, its future, and itself.
[Written March 2010]
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