Valuing Ideas

Indianapolis seems poised for a political battle over a highly unlikely subject: the public library.

Indianapolis seems poised for a political battle over a highly unlikely subject: the public library.

Over half a million residents of our city are "card carrying" library users, and a substantial number of them are strong supporters of the library’s current plans for maintenance and expansion. On the other side is the Mayor, who says he supports libraries, just not the use of tax dollars to upgrade them. He has suggested, among other things, charging patrons when they borrow items other than books.

This is a classic political issue. When the Mayor made it clear that he would lobby the City County Council to reject the library’s first funding choice, a pay-as-you-go tax increase, the library board responded by choosing a different, and more expensive, alternative–the issuance of bonds. The mayor has now signaled that he may mount a petition drive opposing the bonds. If he does so, the issue will go to the citizens, and the side that gets the most signatures will win.

The allocation of tax dollars is a matter specifically assigned to the majoritarian politi cal process. It is certainly not my intent to weigh in on the propriety of one funding mechanism over another, nor to debate whether a new branch is really needed in any particular neighborhood. But the conflict does present all of us with an opportunity to reflect upon the role of the public library in nourishing American democracy.

When the founding fathers crafted our system, they gave ordinary citizens an unprecedented amount of freedom. The founders relied upon voters to educate themselves on the issues of the day; to approach their expanded liberties with an appreciation of their importance and a due regard for the responsibilities of citizenship. Access to ideas, to books and papers and pamphlets, was an important component of the democratic experiment. Free public libraries were fundamental to that access.

Countless American immigrants have learned about their new country at the local library. Schoolteachers have enriched their classrooms; poor children have been introduced to new worlds and new possibilities. Writers and artists who have enriched our culture testify to the influence of time spent in the library. Some of our greatest thinkers found an early escape from stultifying environments by taking refuge in the library.

In center cities, where schools are not always well-equipped, the library may be the only place a poor youngster can learn about the internet. In rural areas, where diversity is often only a word in the dictionary, the library may be the only place a child encounters people who do not look like his neighbors.

We do many worthwhile things with our tax dollars. We pave our streets, pay our police, dispose of our waste. We provide emergency medical services. We engage in economic development. All of these activities are important, and they all cost money. Now, we are being asked to assign a dollar value to the services provided by our libraries. We are being asked if we want those services badly enough to pay slightly higher taxes for them.

The answer will tell us a great deal about ourselves and our community.