These are hard times for publicly funded libraries. Local governments have less money for all the services they traditionally fund, not just for us. It seems fair, if not desirable, that public libraries take our share of reductions. It's not that local funders don't love us any more, or don't understand our basics, like increased use in economic downturns. There simply isn't enough money to go around.
Public library advocates and staff must compete effectively for our share, for funds we do need. To be successful, we must understand clearly how others see us. As local governments work to apportion their reduced revenues among needy agencies in the queue of publicly funded enterprises, their decisions will reflect their understandings, not ours. Do they understand public libraries as necessities or amenities? Should they? Should we?
The nature of public support
Public libraries came into being to extend the reach of public education. The authorizing legislation in most states reflects the broad public understanding that we are about education and learning. Because the major authoritative resource for education in the 19th century was the books, we became about books and about reading, the skill needed to use them. Ourforbearers, committed to the Enlightenment values of reason, freedom, and democracy, understood learning as important for the well-being of the body politic, not just for the improvement of individuals. They gradually developed systems of public schools and libraries so all might learn, regardless of station in life or personal resources. By and large they chose to support them with local property taxes, which meant wealthy communities had well-funded public schools and libraries and poor communities had to make do with less.
In the language of public finance theory, public libraries were funded because it was believed their existence and use had positive externalities, i.e., created desired social conditions for all, namely the educated citizenry required for effective democratic government. Our "justification" language through the years moved from being about the value of reading to the opportunities for economically struggling folks to "read their way up," and, in the 1960s, to the people's right to information. Our public statements contain threads of all our previously understood purposes, modified to include current technologies. But it's a fuzzy mix of language about importance, equity, and use that we apply to seek support for our budgets these days. At the desks of public funders, pleas for support in hard times sort themselves into two piles--community amenities and community necessities. Their decisions usually reflect an intuitive sense, shared by their constituents, of which is which and why.
In the realm of public management, "necessities" are understood to be those things that people have a right to because they are strongly held to be part of a socially valuable condition, such as an absence of danger in daily life. Funders and citizens believe they have a right to safe neighborhoods so fire and police services are supported as necessities. Publicly provided necessities are subject to citizen indignation when people perceive they are not distributed fairly. Periodic agitation for equitable schools, police patrols, and firefighter availability is familiar in most communities.
"Amenities" are publicly provided services that respond to individual preferences and are usually publicly funded because of economies of scale. For example, if the rationale for garbage collection is to keep neighborhoods looking neat, it can rightly be understood as an amenity because it offers aesthetic pleasure to individuals.
Public libraries don't fit neatly into one category or another because we do not do just one thing. We do many things for many people. Some of our services may be understood as amenities, some as necessities. …