Sunday, April 08, 2007

Is Access to Library Books a Constitutional Right?

The Michigan Supreme Court is about to decide that question for its 388 public libraries and the decision is bound to have a major impact on those libraries either way the court rules. Up to now, Michigan communities without a public library of their own have negotiated an agreement with a neighboring town that, for a price, allows their citizens to use the libraries located in those towns. This system seems to have worked well enough until one such agreement expired and was not successfully renegotiated, resulting in Bloomfield Hills residents being left without access to any public library.

Talks had broken down over what the township could charge Bloomfield Hills for letting all of its nearly 4,000 residents borrow books. The township wanted about $1.4 million over three years, more than double what it charged the city from 2000 to 2003.

The township was fed up that its smaller neighbor was paying about $150 per household to use the library when township residents had to pay nearly $300 a household in property taxes for their own library. They now pay $403 per household.

"It just didn't sit well for taxpayers here or for the library trustees," said Karen Kotulis-Carter, director of the Bloomfield Township Public Library. "They're happy to share resources. Just be fair about it."
If the justices require libraries to sell cards to nonresidents, librarians worry it would undercut service deals they have with communities without libraries. Those communities could instead just tell their residents to apply for nonresident cards.

That ultimately would reduce a stable and much-needed funding source for libraries, according to the Michigan Library Association and statewide groups representing cities, villages and townships. State government has been cutting aid to libraries because of recent budget deficits. Libraries have at least 200 service contracts with municipalities around the state.
This is a new issue to me, something I've never even considered as I use the services of my excellent county library system here. Common sense tells me that no one should be shut out from the public library nearest him. But it also tells me that all who use the library should be "taxed" equally whether that tax is a direct one for the benefit of the library or a fee charged to those not part of the official tax base. It should be simple enough to compute that amount for each library in Michigan or elsewhere.

The question is whether or not the Michigan Supreme Court has any common sense.


  1. OMG! That sounds like a LOT of tax money to pay for a library in your area. We pay around $15 in taxes and a non-area user has to pay $20 annually for a card.

    Of course, one could make the case that I don't live in Michigan but Mississippi, and we are lagging in library support.

    So, we get GREAT services for our tax dollars! ;D

  2. My mother works for a county library system in Washington State and they are always concerned about funding. It seems to me that the Courts ruling in favor of a non-resident card would cut a major source of funding for libraries in Michigan at a time when they definitely need the money. As the son of a library employee and a book lover I hope that Michigan libraries are able to receive adequate funding no matter the source.

  3. Maggie, I tried to find what I pay for library service here in Harris County, Texas, but I can't come up with a number. I see that I paid $729 to the county last year for things that aren't detailed but I have no idea how much of that went to the library system.

  4. Matt,
    I totally agree with you. Common sense has to prevail or the court will do great harm to the citizens of Michigan. That's what scares me...common sense is not so common among judges these days.

  5. It's not really a black and white issue. For example, in the Michigan case people are currently travelling into town to use the library; while they are in town they may well spend money in businesses near the library; thus contributing to the overall tax revenue.
    If the library service is withdrawn maybe these people will not go into town as often as they currently do.
    I live in the suburbs where we have our own library system. Two years ago we were given permission to use the City library system free of charge(I pay no taxes to the City) The City did this as an incentive to attract people to the City centre.

  6. That's a great point, Nick. It doesn't sound like anyone in Michigan is taking that kind of thing into consideration but maybe they should because of the increased sales tax revenue that the extra visits would create.

  7. The only rights anyone has are those that don't cost anyone else any money. Everything else is a privilege.

    Look at the Bill of Rights. All free stuff. You're allowed to have a gun -- but the government doesn't have to give you one. You're allowed to say whatever you want about the government -- but they don't have to give you a printing press. Etc, etc.

    Education, health care, housing - not rights but privileges because they are not free. Someone has to pay for them. Same thing with libraries. I think libraries are one of the best uses of my tax money around, but they are a privilege. Books are not free, librarians are not free, buildings are not free. If you want to use the library, you need to pay for it.

  8. I absolutely agree with you, C.F. I like the idea that some of my tax money goes to something that I actually enjoy using so much and I would hate to live anyplace without access to a good library system.

    But I feel that everyone needs to pay an equal share of the cost of running something like a public library. So if they don't live inside the tax jurisdiction, they need to cover their share of the cost more directly or by having their own taxing authority reimburse the one footing the bill.

  9. If you choose to live where there is a library, yes, you need to foot the bill. But if you choose to live someplace without services just to have lower taxes, then if you do want those services, you have to pay whatever the nearest municipality wants to charge you.

    But your neighbors who do *not* want those services should not be forced to pay.

    By the same token, those who have decided to live someplace without firefighting services because they don't want to pay the taxes don't get to whine because the fire truck stops two miles from their house.

  10. Exactly so. It's all about paying for the services that you use and not expecting others to share their services with you if you don't plan to pay your fair share of the cost involved.