February 6th, 2014 Brian Herzog
Here'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.
April 20th, 2013 Brian Herzog
This week I have almost nothing to say. First, everyone here has been focused on the bombings in Boston and the ensuing manhunt, which thankfully ended with an arrest Friday night. Secondly, this week was also school vacation week in Massachusetts, which always makes for a slow time at the Reference Desk.
As a result, the most notable question of the week was actually the lack of a particular question. Friday, April 19th, was the first day since January that not one person asked me for tax forms. Now that is a milestone worth celebrating.
Hopefully next week things will return to normal, and I'll get back on track with library stuff - and put away our tax form display for another year.
March 6th, 2013 Brian Herzog
I know the IRS prides itself on keeping track of assets, but it makes me laugh every time I see the packing lists that come in tax forms shipments from the IRS:
The first line on the top packing list (1 Z Shrink Wrap) accounts for the shrink wrap used to seal the forms, and the first line on the lower list (1 E 182 W) accounts for the one Envelope used. Now that is some fine-tuned accounting, and I can appreciate that.
February 9th, 2013 Brian Herzog
Earlier this week I mentioned something I really like about working in libraries. For the reference question this week, I'm going to talk about something I don't like about my job:ambiguity.
And, fair warning: the next few paragraphs are just me whining, so feel free to skip to the question at the end.
This week was kind of a perfect storm of annoyances for me, if you'll pardon the pun. First, it's tax season. Second, I don't know if this made the news outside of New England, but we got a bit of a storm Friday and Saturday. Most of the questions this week dealt with one of these topics.
First, the tax stuff
Tax forms were late this year, which always brings out the worst in people. When we finally started getting the ones people wanted and put them out for the public, people were happy - until they noticed we didn't have all the forms and instructions they wanted.
Now, libraries don't create the tax forms, and we have no input into the publication schedule - we just help distribute them. We put out what we can, and for the ones we know we're missing, like the 1040 Instructions, we put up a sign saying something like "1040 Instructions have not arrived yet."
Of course this prompts people to ask when they'll arrive. We have no idea. They don't know we don't know, but also rarely seem to take "we don't know" for an answer. It's a no-win situation, and one I hate to be in - I hate it when "I don't know" is really the best thing I can tell someone. It has been especially bad this year.
Second, the snow storm
This storm was predicted to be a big one, starting early on Friday and lasting into Saturday night. It was supposed to be so big, in fact, that about noon on Friday, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick issued an executive order closing all the roads in the state at 4pm, with a $500 fine if you were caught out after that. So, yeah, serious.
All schools in the area were closed on Friday, and most libraries closed at noon - but not us. The way things work in my town is that it's the Town Manager's call, and his philosophy is to keep public facilities open as long as conditions allow. When we do close early, we usually only get an hour or two notice.
This can cause a bit of a problem, because while most libraries announced their early closing on Thursday, Friday at noon we were still telling patrons, "sorry, we don't know how long we'll be open." It was frustrating, because the phone was ringing constantly with people asking, "hey, are you open?" and, "are you closing early?" and, again, the best we could tell them was "we don't know."
This demoralized staff, but was also frustrating for patrons - road conditions were deteriorating, and they had to weigh if it was worth it to drive to the library to get books and DVDs for the upcoming snow-bound weekend. But then not even knowing if we'd be open once they got here was understandably irritating.
Now the question
One question I dread every winter is the "how much snow fell on X date?" We get similar weather-related questions throughout the year, but snowfall is always the toughest. The problem is there is no good local resource that provides the data the patrons want, so the best we can do is cobble together what we can find and let them draw their own conclusions.
This time, someone asked me how much snow fell on two different days in January, because the plow guy she uses billed her for $60 for plowing 4" on January 16th and $40 for 1" on the 29th. Something seemed off to her, so she wanted to double-check to make sure that's how much snow was on her driveway on those days.
Now that is hyper-local, and it's just tough. My favorite historical weather resource, which I've talked about before, is NOAA's snow data files, and they have snowfall and snow depth by month. The closest NOAA monitoring station is only the next town over, which is pretty good, but it's still far enough away to not be able to conclusively say what happened in her driveway on those days.
The other resource I've found that's good for this type of question is Accuweather's past weather table. This is great because it easily lets you scroll backward in time, and shows snowfall in addition to precipitation (most weather resources just show precipitation, which is why snowfall is more difficult than rainfall).
But a problem with consulting multiple resources is when, as in this case, the numbers don't match up. Accuweather's amounts different from NOAA's, which are themselves different from the plow guy's amounts. Not enough to dispute the bill, which I think is all this patron is looking for really. But I include this on my list of "ambiguity annoyances" because I don't like it when I can't find a solid answer for someone. I know it's the nature of research, but still - frustrating.
Anyway, in this particular case, the patron also slightly annoyed that the plow guy charged her for plowing an inch of snow - but, wisely, she decided she wasn't going to say anything to him until after the major storm this weekend.
Tags: closing, complain, early, forms, grouch, libraries, Library, public, Reference Question, snow, storm, tax, taxes
July 7th, 2011 Brian Herzog
I have less and less time to keep up with reading RSS feeds these days, but a fantastic post by Carrie Straka, a contributor at Tame the Web, reminded me why it's worth it to keep current on blogs.
She attacks the myth that everything in the library is free, and explains why "a library card isn’t a 100% off coupon." Library materials aren't free - we make them freely accessible, because they have already been paid for. It's like the food in your refrigerator - it was purchased at one point, to be consumed at your leisure (or not used and wasted).
Many users believe that the services and materials we provide are free. As all library staff knows, this is a misconception. The services and materials we provide are not free. In fact, they are far from it. Librarians work within a budget and use all money provided to us through taxes, tuition, or other means.
The comments are also interesting.
And something else I'd like to add, in terms of patrons having misconceptions about ownership of library resources: I've heard some patrons say that they're not returning some item, because their tax dollars have paid for it and they want to keep it - and besides, their tax dollars pay my salary so they can tell me what to do.
This too is a misconception. In libraries, there is no translation between one person's tax share and possessive ownership over a portion of the collection. The entire community's taxes are pooled to build a shared community resource, and library staff are paid to maintain a useful collection and ensure all the materials remain available for the entire community.
It seems a little contrary to the library spirit, but I do tend to err on the side of serving the community rather than the individual. It's a fine line to walk, and my library's yes-based policy means we are accommodating in individual situations - but when push comes to shove (which is thankfully rare), I do consider the library a community resource, not a private one.
February 5th, 2011 Brian Herzog
I apologize in advance for this week's question - it won't help anyone, and I was trying to avoid the topic this year, but it seems like it's the only thing on patrons' minds lately.
Now, repeat the following conversation about one million times:
Me: Hi, can I help you?
Patron: I saw all your tax forms, but there were no instructions for the 1040 - do you have any more?
Me: No, I'm sorry, we haven't received those yet. We put out everything we get as they arrive, and we do expect to get some, but we don't know when they will arrive.
Patron: Do you know when you'll get some?
Me: No, I'm sorry, they just come whenever they're printed and shipped.
Patron: Well how does the government expect us to get our taxes in on time when they don't...
[insert any number of rants and complaints here, with varying levels of anger and annoyance]
I always try to tell people that tax forms are delayed this year because the tax cut extensions that were voted on in December pushed everything back. I also try to tell them that everything is available online (which most people don't care about), and that there are still months left before taxes are due, so there is still plenty of time (sometimes that elicits looks like I suggested they go kick a puppy).
Patrons ask if we can call them when the instructions come in (we don't do that), and if we can post on our website when they arrive (we will do that). What bothers me the most are the people who, since they can't get what they want, take one of everything we have (instructions for the 1040A and 1040EZ), "just in case." They take a couple copies of the forms too - and I'm worried that when they do come back to get the instructions, they'll take more copies of the forms then, which will cause us to run out of things sooner, which causes us to reorder more from the IRS, which means they print more, which drives up their printing costs, which defeats the purpose of not mailing forms to peoples' homes in the first place.
I'd be very curious, after tax season is over, to hear how this year's approach to tax forms went. Not mailing them to peoples' homes and getting them out late was just a unfortunate coincidence, but still, I wonder how much money they're saving, how many people will file late or incorrectly (which probably also drives up staffing costs for the IRS), and if it was worth it.
And of course, the conspiracy theorist in me wonders if there's more to it: between IRS changes and changes to the way Massachusetts did tax forms this year, it really is extremely difficult for an individual to do their own taxes. I wonder if there is some powerful Tax Preparer lobby that wants to make it impossible for people to do their own taxes, thus driving up their profits and taking one more bit of self-reliance and freedom away from citizens. Hmm - seems far-fetched, but then all of my favorite conspiracies are.