or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

My Taxes Pay Your . . .

   February 6th, 2014

tax billHere's a sentiment that has bothered me ever since I started working in libraries: the idea that an accountable portion of everyone's tax bill goes into the library budget, and that anyone could dictate exactly how "their" portion is spent.

It bothers me because it is the exact opposite of how community-funded resources work, and it's difficult to convince someone of this who is dead-set on it.

Recently one of our patrons requested we purchase a specific book. However, it didn't fit our collection development policy*, and was kind of expensive anyway ($55), so I had to tell the patron that the library wouldn't be purchasing it.

There were copies in libraries not too far away, but they were all reference copies, so I couldn't even request it for her. It's unfortunately when a library can't fill a patron's request, but it does happen.

However, this patron was upset with my decision, and came back with the argument that she was a tax payer, and she wants her tax money to be used to purchase this book.

This got me wondering just what an average resident does "contribute" to the library's budget, so I did some rough calculations:

  • Library budget is roughly $1,500,000
  • Chelmsford population is roughly 33,000
  • So, $1,500,000 / 33,000 = $45

These numbers are very rough, but I was surprised the contribution was even this high - and that it happened to be so close to the price of the book in question.

But if we did allow this sort of earmarking, it would mean that this patron's entire year's library privileges, plus part of next year, would be tied up in this one book. If this system was used, she couldn't use any other library resource: no other books, DVDs, etc, she couldn't come into the library and use our electricity or heat, and she wouldn't be entitled to any assistance from staff. For more than a year.

This is why this kind of micromanaging is impossible in community-funded resources. Taxes stop being "my taxes" as soon as they're paid to the Town, and then become "our resources." That money is then spent by responsible stewards - librarians, Town Clerk, DPW workers, etc - in a way that best benefits the town overall. Everyone in town, who are all treated equally, regardless of how much their tax bill is.

I apologize for the rant - I know this is all basic Library 101 stuff, but maybe only to librarians.


*It was a genealogy book about early settlers of Jamestown, VA, and no sources I consulted drew any connection to Chelmsford, MA. We only collect local and regional resources, and this just didn't fit. Plus, since we have a limited budget, purchasing it could mean that two other items more relevant to Chelmsford don't get purchased. This is why collection development policies are so important.

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18 Responses to “My Taxes Pay Your . . .”

  1. Ravana Says:

    A former coworker used to ask the “I pay taxes” people what their address was. After they answered she’d tap some keys on her computer and say, “Oh, I’m sorry, it says here your taxes pay for the toilet paper.”

  2. Katie Says:

    I tend to get this response when people wanting to use more computer time, or stay after the library closes. Using your math, “My taxes…” wouldn’t cover my overtime!

  3. Peggy O'Kane Says:

    Great post and great way to think about it. Thanks.

  4. Anne Says:

    It’s actually less than $45 if your taxes are also paid by commercial properties (as they are in my state). Most of our library services were funded by organizations such as the electric company, big companies in town, and small businesses. A smaller portion came from actual residential property taxes which here are taxed at a lower rate (homestead property exemption).

  5. Sara Says:

    I work in academic libraries and once a director I know made a webpage explaining how much people got out of the library based on what their tuition put into the budget and what they got out of it. It was a great way to show people how they got so much more than what they paid for. The same could be done to show people how little they contribute to the library in their taxes. I suspect your math is very rough but showing your patrons what they get for their $45 and how much it really costs could help them understand. Even in academic we often get people who have the same attitude- especially public universities.

  6. Jami Says:

    In a big training thing recently we were told (as a joke) to hand the person 15 cents and say “There’s your taxes back.”

  7. Jean Hewlett Says:

    I used to have a job doing “second level reference.” This meant I’d answer reference questions that were too difficult or too time-consuming for the librarians at our member libraries. (Often it was simply that I had access to resources they didn’t have.)

    My fantasy was that you could find someone similar at a library in Virginia and have them copy the information about the patron’s ancestor for you. Then I remembered that positions like that don’t exist anymore.

  8. Elizabeth Says:

    I’d be curious if this person is a regular library user. If so, she would possibly be more sympathetic to things like collection development policies, and the need to spend money in ways that will benefit a wider swath of the community.

    I find that people who come into the library with a very specialized request that’s hard to fulfill don’t tend to understand as well how libraries work. They just want the one thing.

  9. Marcie Says:

    I’m sure you did what you could to find the book, but you didn’t specify offering interlibrary loan. It’s possible that every owning library has marked the book as reference, but perhaps the ILL people could have found somewhere that was willing to loan. The process isn’t speedy, but at least patrons can get what they need most of the time.

  10. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Jean: that’s not a bad idea, if the patron knows what they want. I’ve certainly called libraries in the past and asked them to copy/fax certain pages of a book for me (and have gotten calls like that, too).

    @Marcie: That is the danger of being your own editor, I suppose. This whole thing started as an ILL request, and only escalated to me as a purchase request when they couldn’t find a copy. Even still, I looked in WorldCat quickly anyway, and sure enough, all the libraries on the first few pages were reference copies, so I stopped looking. I did discover that a library just 11 miles away had it, so the patron does have the option of driving two towns over to see the book. I also looked in Google Books, hoping this could be a print-on-demand title we could get relatively cheaply, but no luck there either.

  11. Mara Says:

    Most genealogy books (other than how-to) are short run and always have been. That’s why digitization of out-of-copyright materials is so helpful. We’ve “filled” ILLs through our Heritage Quest subscription, for instance.

  12. Melanie Says:

    I worked at an academic library once where a student demanded I do something (against policy) for them, because they “paid your salary.” It had happened before, and I was done with it – I took a dime out of my pocket and handed it to them, told them to pass it along to their parents, since they actually paid the tuition, and quit later that week. I’m at a different academic library now, and have not once gotten that comment. Thank goodness.

  13. James Says:

    Speaking of rough math, you say 33,000 is about the population of Chelmsford. That could potentially mean that a patron of this type would be asking to use some of his or her family’s share of library services, or if single, part of an unrelated taxpayer’s share! Doesn’t hardly seem fair, really.

  14. Laurie Says:


  15. Matthew Says:

    As my academic colleague said above, we get the same attitude in academic settings. We get the ‘it’s my tuition’ line a little too often. Fortunately, most students are kind, appreciative and understanding. And these are (often) 19-20 year olds! Good post! You certainly struck a nerve.

  16. Cari Says:

    The ranting is all good. We’ve all heard it :-)

    I think you went above and beyond the call of duty – but then, I am sure that happens a lot!

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