EYE ON THE PIE: Should we consolidate libraries?

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At last, we have a commission working to see if we can improve government in Indiana through reorganization. Former Gov. Joe Kernan and Supreme Court Justice Randy Shepard are leading the effort.

Some of us are concerned that the commission has been established to find ways not to improve government services, but to cut local property taxes. The two goals might not work in the same direction.

Public libraries are often cited as ripe for consolidation. There are 238 of them serving Indiana’s 92 counties. Why is it that Huntington County has but one school district but four public libraries? Grant County needs eight libraries to serve its needs?

The fundamental argument for consolidation rests on the idea that the costs of central services and administration will decline without any deterioration in the quality or quantity of services. Is this true?

In 2006, according to data provided by the Indiana State Library, the Whiting Public Library led the state with operating expenditures of $164 per resident. Whiting has 5,137 people, just a few more than the 5,050 served by the Churubusco library at a cost of $16 per person. Are we to believe these two institutions offer the same services?

Without any disrespect for Churubusco, we could easily believe that Whiting offers a broader selection of services. Whiting may have more materials. It may be open more hours per week with more trained staff. It could have story hours for children and many computers. Should we use Churubusco or Whiting as the standard?

The average per-capita library expenditure was $47. The state’s largest library (Indianapolis-Marion County) had a per-capita expenditure of $37, just a few cents more than the much smaller Steuben County public library.

There are no apparent economies of scale to be found in a simplistic analysis of the available public library data. Will the Kernan-Shepard commission dig deeper before recommending library consolidations?

Are public libraries among the evil local governments that have propelled property taxes to excessive levels? From 2001 to 2006, total operating expenditures of public libraries rose an annual average of 3.1 percent. During the same period, the consumer price index climbed 2.6 percent a year.

Hence, real library operating expenditures in Indiana (that is, adjusted for inflation) increased an annual average of just 0.4 percent.

Some citizens are upset because their public libraries have new buildings. These might be the same people who don’t believe in modernized schools or air-conditioning for students. Often, they like the looks of the old building and want it preserved despite its inadequacies. Nostalgia is a potent but destructive force in Indiana. Hence, such capital expenditures are viewed as unnecessary, foolish and irresponsible acts by an indifferent and insensitive library board. Such construction activities may or may not have a bearing on the consolidation question.

More important is the role of the public library in modern America. Are libraries leftover institutions from the 19th century? Are they needed in the Internet age? Is circulating current movies, popular music and romance novels the kind of services we want from publicly supported libraries? What new functions could libraries serve in the 21st century?

These are legitimate questions to be answered long before consolidation is considered. Perhaps the best recommendation the Kernan-Shepard commission can make is for libraries to enter joint discussions of their futures and to seek ways in which services can be improved, keeping cost increases moderate. It may not sound like much of a recommendation, but our expectations of the commission may be hyped by our hysteria over property taxes.

Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com.

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