Building up our libraries by the book

He really likes libraries.

When he was 10 years old, his family moved to a new house just down the street from the town library, and it was “like moving to heaven.” He devoured the entire teen section in a year, and the librarian was so impressed that she gave him an adult card at age 11 so he could check out five books at a time – enough to get him through the weekend and Monday, when the library was closed. Many years later, when that librarian passed away, he was the biggest contributor to a fund to establish a new reading room in her honor.

So how did this Bainbridge Island resident and lifelong reader vote on the recent Kitsap Regional Library levy?

He voted “No.”

“The library board’s fiscal management had clearly been irresponsible, and they seemed to be most enthusiastic about secondary missions that had little to do with books,” he told the Review this week. “In fact, I think the word ‘book’ hardly appeared in the literature they circulated in support of the increase.”

Voter defeat of the May levy “lid lift” – which would have boosted Kitsap library system tax revenues from around $8 million this year to $15 million in 2008 – caused consternation and dismay among patrons in this community, where the local library branch enjoys great popularity. After a round of phone polling for which findings have yet to be released, library officials say they will not go back to voters this year, but will instead reach out to the community for direction. It’s a good move.

Readers will recall that this editorial page was skeptical of the levy hike; we questioned past financial decisions that had brought the library system to such a state of want. The levy campaign’s own literature made it clear that KRL had known for several years that costs were outpacing tax revenues, yet the libraries continued to add staffing, hours and services. A multi-million-dollar reserve fund was whittled to nothing, then the libraries pleaded penury. Voters were unmoved, and now service cuts loom.

In failure’s wake, the mantra among library officials has been, “it was a vote against higher taxes, not against libraries.” Agreed – but the levy still failed. The goal now must not be to “educate” voters (a euphemism for force-feeding them the same measure they’ve already defeated), but honest appraisals of what patrons want and what the county as a whole is willing to pay for. The prevailing view of the modern athenaeum clearly includes all manner of computers and multimedia gewgaws. And name a public agency that doesn’t want a bigger staff to provide more services. But for some patrons, old fashioned as it may seem, the library is still about books. They’ll vote accordingly.

Lest there be any question, it is possible to revere the library as an institution and still question its direction. As our correspondent notes, “even eleemosynary institutions have to practice responsibility.”

We might add: bibliothecarial ones, too.

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Postscript: If and when library service cuts are announced, pay attention to how they hit the Bainbridge branch. While islanders make up just 9 percent of the county’s population, our healthy property tax base means we provide 20 percent of Kitsap Regional Library system’s tax revenue. Whatever the island’s “fair share” is, we’re already paying that and more.