Long Island Professor Offended by Libraries

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More specifically, a $495 yearly library tax.

By now, you’ve almost certainly heard of Panos Mourdoukoutas and his ire regarding having to pay a yearly tax for libraries he doesn’t use. Forbes Magazine published an article by Mr. (not calling him Dr. until he stops behaving like a fool) Mourdoukoutas in which he whines about the library tax, asserts that “not enough people read” to justify the tax or even keeping libraries open, and suggests closing libraries and replacing them with Amazon stores.

Mr. Mourdoukoutas is a professor of economics. Based on that, one would think he would have some concept of the economic disaster that would result in little (wealthy) communities like his in Nassau County if all people who work at libraries suddenly lost their jobs. I lived on Long Island. I’m familiar with the area where Mr. M. lives. And I’m familiar with a few Long Island libraries. Just like here in North Carolina, the libraries on Long Island are popular among senior citizens in Mr. M.’s age range and income bracket. I worked in a library for 10 years. The country club set certainly got their money’s worth out of the library. I was always perplexed by the fact that people who could easily afford to buy books chose to wait on a reserve list for weeks to read the newest best-seller. Many senior citizens came to the library every morning to read the newspaper and socialize. They attended programs and club meetings at the library. On Long Island, the libraries offered classes like yoga for seniors. I think older people on Long Island are probably generally unhappy with Mr. M.’s desire to shut down libraries and replace them with a chain of bookstores.

Libraries provide vital services to the entire community. You can read almost any book for free. You can now borrow eBooks from libraries. You can check out movies and TV shows on DVD. Some libraries have live streaming access as well as DVDs. You can borrow music CDs. You can access free Wi-Fi. You can get online. That’s an invaluable service for students and job seekers who don’t have Internet at home.

Nothing will ever replace the human knowledge of a librarian with a degree in Library Science. Librarians can answer many questions off the top of their heads, or they can direct you to books and periodicals that will give you solid information. Google is garbage. I’m sorry, but it’s almost useless anymore. Sometimes, you just need a book.

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Librarians can help your child properly format a research paper. Librarians can help you format your resume. They can help you find resume templates and books about writing resumes. Writing a book? You have to have access to Writer’s Market. It changes every year. Your local library probably has it in the reference collection.

Today’s library is generally geared towards teens. Teen-only reading areas, librarians specializing in YA books, free digital content, and Internet access bring in teens. Teens are saving the community library. But still, when the fiscal year begins, the library budget is first on the chopping block. Libraries are cutting back their hours, staff, and staff benefits. We don’t need selfish anti-library discontent in Forbes right now. I think it was a foolish decision to allow Mr. M.’s op-ed to be published in Forbes. If it belongs anywhere, it belongs in the letters to the editor section of his local paper.

The children’s area of the library is also very important. Story times, supervised Internet access, computer games, special programs like plays, and the summer reading program serve the library’s youngest patrons. When I worked at the library, the children’s librarian worked very hard every summer to get migrant farm workers to bring their children to the library. Because of today’s anti-immigrant atmosphere, I don’t think that’s safe for immigrant families, and that’s very sad.

Literacy programs help immigrants learn English and help English speakers learn to read and write. Yes, I did just say that there are enough illiterate or semi-literate adults here to justify literacy classes. And it’s all free because we pay taxes. Someone on Twitter researched Mr. M.’s tax complaint and found out that it’s based on property value. I believe they said that his home must be assessed at around 1.5 million dollars. That’s not surprising for a home in a beach community in Nassau County on Long Island.

(Think about that a moment. Home worth 1.5 million, and the man doesn’t want to pay slightly less than $500 per year in library taxes. Hey, there are no children in my household, but we pay school taxes.)

Back to the human experience that patrons get when they go to the library. I started working as a page about two weeks after graduating from high school. In less than two years, I was a clerk at the circulation desk. You see a lot at the circulation desk. Upper middle-class people threatening to have you fired because they turned in a book a day late and owe a dime. Homeless people spending all day in the library during summer and winter. Confrontations between kids from rival high schools over football games. Lonely elderly people who just want someone to talk to and end up becoming your good friend.

The most shocking and sobering experience I had working at the library happened when I was in my very early 20s. A young woman came to the circulation desk. I was the only one there at the moment. My co-worker was on break or in the bathroom. The young woman said, “I lost my baby.” I stupidly thought she meant that her child was in the library and she wanted me to page them to come to the desk. “No,” she said. “I had a miscarriage and Dr. T. told me to come here and get a book about it.”

Then I got furious, because I had the misfortune of also being one of Dr. T.’s patients and knew his abrasive manner and utter lack of empathy. He was a long-time OB-GYN and could have done much more for this woman than send her to the library, essentially dismissing her. I have no doubt that the practice had materials on dealing with miscarriages. I have no doubt that he could have written her a prescription for anti-depressants. I have no doubt that he could have referred her to a therapist.

But he didn’t. He sent her to the library to ask a stranger for help. I’m amazed that she had the fortitude to do it. I took her upstairs and found several books about coping with depression after a miscarriage. She took two or three home. I never saw her again.

What if there was no library, just an Amazon store? Employees at chain stores aren’t really prepared to deal with a situation like a customer looking for books about miscarriage. A chain store is a chain store. A library is intimately connected to the community, and the people who work at the library care about the community. We don’t apply for library jobs just because we need a job . . . well, times have certainly changed since then, I suppose that people do. But generally, a person working in any department of the library loves books and wants to share that love of books with patrons. We care about our patrons, even the ones who rant over a 10-cent late fee because we care about our community and how the library impacts it.

Don’t want to send your DNA to a company and spend $60 for an ancestry assessment? Go to the library. We had a third floor devoted to the “history room,” which was really the genealogy room. We had so many materials: census books, marriage, birth, and death records, family histories, antique photographs, newspapers on microfiche. We were so well known for our genealogical collection that we had visitors from as far away as California.

You’re not going to find that at an Amazon store.

So, I challenge Mr. Mourdoukoutas and Forbes magazine. Mr. Mourdoukoutas, go spend some time in your local libraries. Forbes, give this rebuttal space in your magazine.

And everyone else . . . the more you and your family use the library (and please just pay your overdue fines) the better the chance that your library will remain open.

(Photo © Robin D. Ashe 2015)

 

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