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The Argument

Should municipalities still fund public libraries?



Becky Herrmann

Director, Chelmsford Public Library

People buy bottled water: Do we need municipal water systems? People work from home: Do we need to fund highway maintenance? It’s easy to see where I’m going with this. Online resources are plentiful, but are still only a small percentage of what public libraries offer.

Digital enthusiasts believe this is the only time the world has seen radical change. It is not. Libraries have always adapted to social and technological disruption. That is what we do, and we help our communities do the same. Our specialty is still information sharing; technology is just another gadget on our tool belt.


According to a recent Census survey, 25.6 percent of US households did not have Internet services. Every hour of every day, Massachusetts residents are logging into their public library. The Board of Library Commissioners’ 2014 statistics puts that number at 22,000 people per day. Public libraries are there for them.

Digital is important, but we live in an analog world. About 58 million items were borrowed by Massachusetts residents last year, about 110 per minute. The virtual library is a boon for our patrons but the physical library is where they gather for programs, lectures, meetings, story times, and to connect with friends and neighbors. We just might be handing out iPads to share nursery rhymes, encouraging patrons to scan QR codes to find titles, or reminding them to read our blogs.

Per capita spending for libraries is historically small. Libraries are the best return on your tax dollar investment. Downloading two e-books from your public library pays back the portion of your tax bill that goes toward the library.

Libraries bring together the collective purchasing power of all town residents so families share in the community's resources. Libraries in Massachusetts also group together in consortiums so patron needs are met beyond the bounds of the community, as items can be requested across the state and country.


There is an important social imperative to fund libraries with taxes that are shared throughout our communities. There is no reason to believe that anything other than an entire community’s commitment can sustain this important resource for all of its citizens.

Like water, like roads, your public library is an essential resource that should not be put at risk.



Marc Mercier

Cooperative Library of Boxford

In today’s world of digital media, libraries play a different role than the one traditionally held for decades. When the costs of printed media were much higher relative to income, access was often restricted to the wealthy. Libraries were created to democratize access. Now, digital media and the Internet have dramatically expanded access at significantly less cost to the individuals who utilize them.

Attempting to remain relevant, municipal libraries are adding other entertainment, often duplicating local cafés, nonprofit clubs, and community centers, with the costs being picked up by taxpayers. Is it wise — or fair — to require taxpayers to fund an approach that uses the library label to secure public monies to replicate entrepreneurial ventures?

In my town of Boxford, for less than the cost to access our small library with holdings of about 60,000 materials, each household can literally buy their own tablet and enroll in a service like Amazon’s unlimited reading program, accessing over 700,000 books and other entertainment. Beyond that, there are millions of open domain texts — including nearly all classic literature — available free online through sites like Project Gutenberg and Google Books (not all are free).


Though there are decent economic justifications for municipalities to move away from tax-funded libraries, making resources available for other necessities, there is also a strong philosophical reason to do so. Tax funding creates adversarial political strife among residents with respect to any project; whereas charity only brings a community closer together.

Historically, libraries were funded charitably, not politically. For example, Boxford Town Library was charitably founded in 1796, but it was not until the 1980s that townspeople opted to fully finance it via taxation. For over 180 years, it was funded voluntarily and was a cherished asset of the community. Since changing its nature however, the residents have been in a relentless political dispute about whether to expand it, where to locate it, how big it should be, how much tax is reasonable, or whether to simply close it altogether.

Eliminating the cooperative nature of something that can be done charitably, by making it a government mandate, is always a negative choice for communities.

Globe correspondent Brenda Buote solicited opinions for this exchange. She can be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com.