Public Libraries, Public Good?


The Public Library in the 1980s: The Problems of Choice, by Lawrence J. White, Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 167 pp., $22.95

On a scale of one to ten, which institution do you have the strongest feelings about? The IRS? The Post Office? Your state's department of motor vehicles? Or the public library? Unless you're a library dilettante, the public library is the last on your list. This is all the more reason to appreciate Lawrence J. White's analysis of this oft-overlooked public institution.

In The Public Library in the 1980s: The Problem of Choice, White has done a superb job of identifying the misallocation of resources by public libraries and pointing out the subsidization across economic classes (lower to higher!). In the process, he demolishes many of the historical myths surrounding public libraries (for example, that they are "the people's university"). Also to his credit, White, an economist, goes beyond purely economic analysis and dares to ask the fundamental question: Why have public libraries? Unfortunately, White's answer omits some important considerations. But let me first focus on many excellent points he makes.

White begins with a statement of the basic dilemmas facing public libraries. These result from the fact that public libraries are virtually free to the user and at the same time financed by taxpayers. As a consequence, public librarians lack the incentives and information to allocate their resources to reflect optimally what users really want. Nor do public librarians have any incentive to pursue what, in White's opinion, is the true mission of the library—greater emphasis on serving children and students.

Since public libraries are financed through taxes rather than through revenues generated by users, for the most part public library professionals, when they analyze efficiency and costs, have been focusing exclusively on "input" measurements (for example, how many books per population the library possesses) rather than on "output" measurements (for example, what books per population are actually checked out). Yet in this era of fiscal cutbacks, White argues that public library professionals must face reality and recognize that they cannot continue to provide "free" services to everyone.

One fascinating aspect of White's study is his analysis of users versus payers. He found that the predominant users of libraries are middle- and upper-middle-class recreational readers. The poor are getting the worst of the deal—they use libraries the least, while paying a disproportionate percentage of their income to support public libraries.

White recommends a reorientation of public libraries toward children and students, which would appear to "convey substantial external or spillover benefits to other members of society." He further recommends measures to encourage public librarians to become more concerned with output measurements and operating efficiencies. He admirably proposes that "the imposition of fees for adults and business services must be seen as a legitimate and desirable source of revenue for the public library." Finally, he recommends retention of some government subsidies financed through taxation, because libraries are in certain respects "public goods," according to White, since they help educate children and students.

It is this last recommendation that reveals the most important flaw of White's analysis. In reverting to "public goods" arguments to justify public libraries, White ignores recent criticisms of the concept. He simply assumes that without at least some tax funding, social benefits of libraries would disappear. Either private individuals and groups would have no incentive to establish and operate libraries for the public, or, if they did so, some people would receive a "free ride," benefiting from the library's services but paying nothing for them.

In relying on public-goods theory, White ignores the lessons of economists who have pointed out that it is impossible to truly measure any benefits to society as a whole because of the individual nature of economic values. The public-goods rationale also bypasses the significance of opportunities forgone by those who are forced through taxation to finance public libraries.

Even if some people happen to benefit (to some extent or another) from something they didn't want but were nonetheless forced to pay for, this is hardly a moral justification for compelling them to pay for it in the first place. If a thief later spends the money he robbed from you in your own store, is his theft thereby justified to begin with?

As Robert Nozick of Harvard University asks in regard to the "public goods" problem in Anarchy, State, and Utopia: Should an individual really have an obligation to finance such things without having made a prior agreement? Are we really prepared to accept the full implications of such a proposition? Are the benefits received by individuals proportional to their costs? (And how can we ever know this, since benefits are particular to individuals and cannot really be measured?) To apply Nozick's argument to the case at hand, are not the promoters of libraries really giving an unsolicited value to some people, then grabbing the money to pay for it?

M.D. O'Brien, in his 1906 article "Free Libraries," didn't mince words on the subject: "It is difficult to see any real difference between the man who boldly goes into his neighbor's house and carries off his neighbor's books, and the man who joins with a majority, and under the authority of the ballot-box, sends the tax collector around to carry off the books."

White's examination of the modern public library is unquestionably an authoritative economic analysis. It should be of use to students of public administration, librarians, and local government officials. It may also interest the general reader (especially in communities facing bond measures to finance libraries). Though White fails to address critics of the public-goods concept, he has raised a number of key concerns regarding our current public library system in this thought-provoking book.

Philip Fixler is the director of the Reason Foundation's Local Government Center. He teaches public administration and has worked in local government.