Joni Mitchell sang it first in 1970 in the song “Big Yellow Taxi”. Unfortunately, it’s still true today, nearly 50 years later.
I reflect on this because my local public library had its budget vote yesterday. Oh, the budget passed all right. It passed, according to our local news outlet, by a wide margin—88% of voters were in favor of the library’s budget proposal.
But that number doesn’t tell the real story. The two towns which make up our Library District comprise, according to the 2010 census, just over 58,000 people. Granted, not all those people are eligible to vote—I’m sure there are a lot of under-18’s included in that number. Even so, call it 30,000 eligible voters. Out of those, guess how many cared enough about their library to actually vote?
Yep, you read that right. 681 people deigned to take half an hour out of their busy lives to cast a vote in support of their library. Just over two percent of people in the two towns the library serves. And 74 of those 681 people voted ‘No’.
Now don’t get me wrong. I have no problem whatsoever with people voting no on the library budget. If they feel so strongly about it that they take the time to go to the polling place (the library, in point of fact) and cast their vote, they jolly well deserve to be heard.
What gets me is the fact that only 604 people turned out to actually support the library and vote yes. 604 out of a potential 30,000.
I’m a writer. Well, among lots of other things, but I do consider myself a writer. And I use the library—a lot. I’ve been on the board of the Friends of the Library, and ran the used book sales for five years before ‘retiring’ to devote more time to my writing. And I consider the library to be more than just a repository of books. It’s a gathering place, a community center, a wonderful resource, and meets the needs of countless thousands of people in this community every year. And besides everything else, the library has my book, Traitor Knight, on the shelves. They darned well get my vote every time.
It’s really not about the money. Or if it is, it darned well shouldn’t be. I just checked, and the line item for the library on my tax bill was $140, for the year. $11.66 per month. Most people I know spend a lot more than that on Starbucks or Nexflix each month. Month, nothing. They spend more than that each week. Personally, I consider my library ‘dues’ the best deal in town.
No, I think it’s about complacency. The library has always been there, doing what it does so well that no one really notices or thinks about it. It just *is*. Books and CDs and DVDs go out and get returned by the thousands. Programs for kids and adults are put on to standing room only attendees. English is taught, jobs are sought, teens are fraught, and used books are bought. And it all just happens.
No one really thinks about it. And so, when the annual budget vote rolls around, well there’s kids to get to soccer and dinner to prepare and man that was a rough day at the office and why don’t we just sit back and watch this DVD we got from the library. Because the vote will pass. It always does. Everybody else will show up to vote.
I wonder what will happen, some year down the road, when the only people who show up are those 74 dedicated naysayers. Because the rest of us just couldn’t be bothered. What if the librarians just downed tools and closed up shop? No more books. No more programs. No more community events or tutoring or place for the kids to study for their SATs. The library just went---dark.
To me, as an avid reader and someone who works really hard to produce books that other people will want to read, it’s a really scary thought. Oh, I know the library won’t just up and close its doors. It might have to operate under an austerity budget. Belts might have to be tightened a bit, but things would go on. Just on a smaller scale. Instead of having Lee Child or Archer Mayor come to put on a presentation, it might be…no one. Instead of having the latest Harry Potter or Danielle Steele release on the shelves the day they come out, or the newest DVDs or music, well, new stuff just might not get ordered.
It wouldn’t be the end of the world as we know it.
Or would it?
Keith W. Willis is the author of the award-winning swashbuckling fantasy Traitor Knight. He lives in upstate NY with one wife and no cats. He does not drink coffee, but does consume copious quantities of tea. When he's not busy with his day-job, managing an eclectic group of database content editors, he can be found working diligently to finish Desperate Knight, the second installment of the Knights of Kilbourne saga.