The World According to Nick
My take on Software, Technology, Politics, and anything else I feel like talking about.
Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Berkeley Has It Right 

I know... I know... I'm just as shocked that I just typed that post title as you are reading it, but I have to agree completely with Berkeley's choice of books in their public library. Michelle Malkin points to this post about the books that seem to grace the shelves at the Berkeley Public Library:

You have 0 copies of Michelle's 3 books, yet 33 copies of Al Franken's books. Michelle even does her own research, unlike Franken. You have only 3 copies of Rush Limbaugh's books, yet 30 copies of Michael Moore's books, including Estupidos Hombres Blancos, presumably for the benefit of illegal aliens, who are tragically unable to read Michelle's Invasion.

You have a single Sean Hannity book, 1 Robert Spencer book, & 3 copies of Michael Savage's first book (he's written more). It's nice you have 11 copies of Ann Coulter's books, but you also have 11 copies of What's the Matter With Kansas, 11 copies of Nickel & Dimed, 16 ridiculous copies of Bait & Switch, & 48 volumes of Chomsky wisdom.

Now I can fully understand why Michelle is a little upset over this. They're her books after all, and she of course wants to get as large of a readership as possible. This is natural, and there is nothing wrong with this. But to be frank, I find nothing wrong with Berkeley not having a single one of her books.

First of all... let's not kid ourselves. Berkeley isn't the center for conservative thought in this country. To suggest otherwise, would be pretty disingenuous. Berkeley is a very liberal town, and they're proud of it. So the fact that their public library is catering to the demands of the public... is well... refreshing. Let's ask a very basic question here. Is a book by Michelle Malkin in great demand at the Berkeley Public Library? If it were to go out on the shelves, how often would it be checked out? Would it ever be checked out? And its not as if they don't have any conservative titles.

Now then... let me say that I have nothing against Michelle. I read her blog quite often. You'll notice that its even in my blogroll. I say all this because I really don't like public libraries... at all. I don't go to them, and am not a fan of having my tax dollars wasted on a service I don't use. I like to buy my books, and if I want to... I sell them to a used book store. I would love to see public libraries disappear completely, and instead follow a Blockbuster model where you paid for a membership and rented books out. That way people who used books would actually pay for them, and those who don't go there... well... don't pay for it. What a concept. Don't even get me started on libraries that offer DVDs and VHS tapes for free rental, which then compete directly with movie rental stores.

So when I see Berkeley listening to its customers (read taxpayers), almost as if it were a business instead of a government owned monopoly, I think... at least they're doing something right. What I fear the most for the Berkeley Library is that a bunch of people will now start complaining to them over the internet about how they don't have certain books, and the majority of those people will have never stepped in that building, or never will. What's the point in that? If you live in Berkeley, then by all means, complain if you don't see a title you want... but also realize that you're probably in the minority.


You, obviously, do not know how public libraries operate. Operating funds for purchase of new books are based on reading lists from various sources i.e. NYT best sellers, Literary lists, gross printings etc as well as customer requests.

When a library has a few or NO conservative themes or titles on a particular author is not unusual. But based on the obvious inequity on balance of themes as noted above, the ordering people(s) are BLATANTLY showing their political slips.

Libraries serve as a menu of titles for many young readers. By OMITTING virtually all new best selling conservative books is a very discrete form of censorship.

...and you know it!!

  Posted at November 29, 2005 7:38 PM by Anonymous Anonymous  
Well I never said it wasn't deliberate. I suppose one could call it censorhip (and it would be very discrete)... or one could call it catering to your readers wants. It's a fine line I suppose. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink... just like you can put the books on the shelves, but you can't make them check out.

As far as serving as a menu of titles for many young readers... do you honestly believe that? How many "young readers" are going to go parusing for a Michelle Malkin book, or any political commentary book unless its required of them?

Lets be realistic.

  Posted at November 29, 2005 8:01 PM by Blogger Nick  
Not sure that "refreshing" is the best word. Is it refreshing when a conservative continually votes conservatively? Or refreshing when Cindy Sheehan continually bashes Bush? I would think "refreshing" would be when someone stops to value the other side...

  Posted at November 29, 2005 8:09 PM by Anonymous Brandon  
In real life I'm a librarian, although I can't answer for how Berkeley's system conducts its affairs. But our system is fortunate enough to be well-funded enough to be able to buy most everything that the patrons request, consistent with the selection policy. That is, we can usually get it if it is timely, likely to be of general interest, and not a manifest load of crap.

Although my area has a reputation as being quite conservative, the libs here are big readers, and so they get library service out of proportion to their numbers.

If no one in Berkeley is asking for MM's books and no one there is complaining about their absence, then the library probably can't be faulted. Except for keeping a good collection of possibly seldom-read classics, libraries nowadays don't take an eat-your-spinach approach to collection development.

  Posted at November 29, 2005 9:23 PM by Blogger The Sanity Inspector  
Even if you don't personally use the library, do you see a societal benefit from them that accrues to everyone? Isn't it a good thing that even those people who don't have the money to buy the books they read, have access to lots of books?

What about folks who want to read something other than the 18,000 copies of The DaVinci Code at Barnes and Noble?

What about young children, and working class parents who want to make sure their kids get a first-rate education?

I don't use libraries much now, but I used them all the time growing up, and I think I'm the better for it.

  Posted at November 30, 2005 10:06 AM by Blogger Ben Brothers  
I probably shouldn't have really brought up the library thing as it detracts from the main point of this post, and it deserves a post to its own... but...

Ben B: I'm not saying that a place to loan out books should not exist. What I said is that the model for paying for and managing that service should be different. If there is a demand for loaned books, then the market will fill the niche.

And if we do think that there is a greater societal benefit, then there is nothing to say that poor people who are interested in going to the library couldn't get a voucher of some sort that they could use towards a membership.

As far as children go... they're parents can pay for their membership (they already have to sponsor their library card, or be responsible for lost books)... and if they're poor enough, would qualify for a voucher if we thought that appropriate.

Really... libraries are becoming less and less relevant with the internet. Most of my time in the library was not spent checking out books, but rather researching different topics. Now most of that is done on the internet. However, because libraries are gov't sponsored, they have generally not changed with the times... where as a private facility would.

  Posted at November 30, 2005 10:22 AM by Blogger Nick  
"If there's a demand for loaned books, then the market will fill the niche."

Well, maybe. I would argue that "encouraging kids to read" and "providing literary opportunity to everyone" fall under the category of things that we as a society value more highly than the marketplace does.

Getting rid of libraries on free-enterprise grounds strikes me as gratuitous privatization. They're working well the way they are. They fill a community need. The only grounds for objecting seem like ideological ones. The (rather weak) anti-tax argument doesn't work if we're going to replace library levies with vouchers and book stamps for the poor.

The Internet point you bring up is a good one, because, for a very large number of people (primarily poor people in rural and urban communities), the public library is their Internet connection. Just because we don't have librarians look things up in the card catalog any more, doesn't mean the informational capacity of the library is lessened.

  Posted at November 30, 2005 10:41 AM by Blogger Ben Brothers  
I actually find the "for the poor" argument really unconvincing for many communities. Sure... there are some communities where that would be an issue, and maybe a public library would beneficial there. But for many others, there simply aren't that many poor people. Is "for the poor" really that great of an argument to keep public libraries in those places?

Why are we so enamored with a one size fits all solution for every community? The same reasons why we think they all ought to have Michelle Malkin on the shelves?

  Posted at November 30, 2005 10:45 AM by Blogger Nick  
Public libraries benefit everyone, not just "the poor", but it is those who can afford it least who will (as usual) be hit the hardest. And not only the poor. The middle class family struggling to pay the mortgage and the insurance and the gas bill, trying to make ends meet, does not have the means to buy the books their children can or could or would like to read.

And I'm not the one proposing a one size fits all solution. If a city doesn't want to have a library, there aren't evil liberals plotting to build them anyways. It's your proposed libertarian solution -- "to see public libraries disappear completely" -- that fits that description.

  Posted at November 30, 2005 11:07 AM by Blogger Ben Brothers  
But my point is... they don't benefit everyone. They benefit those who make use of them. And libraries aren't free either... their cost of operation is simply hidden away in the bureaucracies of government. You don't think that a lowered tax bill could be used to pay for a cheap libary membership?

Its probably worth an investigation to see if I can find out how much my local library's annual budge is.

  Posted at November 30, 2005 11:13 AM by Blogger Nick  
That's the standard libertarian argument against every government program, and I don't buy it.

The post office only benefits those who send letters.

Roads only benefit those who drive.

Libraries only benefit readers.

Parks only benefit those who use them.

Health care only benefits people who get sick.

The simplistic response: "Even if I never use a library, I benefit by living in a society that is better-educated and more literate. Even if I never drive, I benefit by living in a society where goods and services and people can easily get from one place to another."

Public funding for the Madison library system in FY 2006 is $9,251,375. That comes out to about $30 per person, or about 8 cents a day.

  Posted at November 30, 2005 11:28 AM by Blogger Ben Brothers  
First of all... I'd like to stay on topic here with libraries. So to your comment about "libraries only benefit readers"... that is not true.

Libraries benefit readers who only borrow books. I read a lot. I don't go to libraries. The way in which I read, how I find my books, and what I like to read generally make libraries useless to me.

But we'll never know what could be done instead, because we have a government monopoly on book borrowing, so nobody will ever come in to compete with it, because it wouldn't pay off.

  Posted at November 30, 2005 11:32 AM by Blogger Nick  
Libraries may be useless to you as a patron, but they still benefit you indirectly. You benefit along with the rest of us when everyone has the opportunity to read from a wide variety of literature.

What, precisely, do you object to about libraries? Do you begrudge your 8 cents? Do you have ideological objections to things that aren't driven by market forces? Do you think libraries are "inefficient"? That by providing a public service for free, they are depriving businesses of the opportunity to charge us for book-borrowing?

The societal good of libraries is greater than the profit to be made from them, and in those situations, it's helpful for the community to provide the service in question.

  Posted at November 30, 2005 11:56 AM by Blogger Ben Brothers  
I'll reserve those thoughts for a later post. As I said... this is really detracting from the overall point of this post which was to point out that really there was nothing wrong with what Berkeley did in this case.

But thank you for your comments Ben... I do think that with things like libraries... we take their public presence so for granted, that we don't ever stop to debate whether there is still a need, or if there is, whether they are still the best way to fit that need.

But I'll definitely have a follow up post with more thoughts.

  Posted at November 30, 2005 12:21 PM by Blogger Nick  
With things like libraries... we take their public presence so for granted, that we don't ever stop to debate whether there is still a need, or if there is, whether they are still the best way to fit that need

I certainly agree with you there; we should be prudent and thoughtful when deciding what sort of things and services are best made public. I'm just very leery about knee-jerk libertarianism (not to accuse you of that, certainly), or the ideologically-driven privatization of things that are working fine the way they are. Most libertarian arguments fail to account for the existence of a societal goal, and fail to acknowledge that the market is not always the best allocator of a specific resource.

In my opinion, things like libraries and parks and schools and health care fall into that category. Your mileage may vary, and probably does, but it's an interesting conversation nonetheless.

  Posted at November 30, 2005 1:21 PM by Blogger Ben Brothers  
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Name: Nick
Home: Wauwatosa, WI, United States

I'm a Software Consultant in the Milwaukee area. Among various geeky pursuits, I'm also an amateur triathlete, and enjoy rock climbing. I also like to think I'm a political pundit.

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