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Privatizing public libraries a bad idea

The Cascade Policy Institute thinks it makes good sense to privatize the Multnomah County public library system. But at the most basic level, that's simply the wrong direction to take this important public service.

To put the institute's proposal into context, it's important to understand the underlying motivation of this organization as a fierce libertarian advocate for smaller government. We really wouldn't expect the Cascade Policy Institute to suggest anything but privatization.

While smaller government isn't always a bad idea, it isn't always the best solution. In relationship to county libraries, we fear that privatization would only serve to heap new expenses on the very people least able to afford them. It's that very fringe that we are hearing from across the United States in the 'occupy' movement.

One of the most attractive components of public libraries is the notion that everyone, from any social and economic strata, has equal and unrestricted access to books, periodicals, movies and online resources.

The institute, in its October 2011 study, 'Checking out the options: Creating stable funding and superior service for the Multnomah County Library,' suggests that user fees could entirely replace county tax support of the library system. That fee structure might contain, for example, a 50-cent charge on every item checked out; a $1 entrance fee for visiting the library; or larger fees for both.

Instantaneously, under such a structure, children who visit libraries after school, or senior citizens on fixed incomes, or people who survive on low incomes, would automatically face a choice - pay for access or save their money for other needs.

We believe it likely that many of these people would opt out of using the library, giving up their access to information and entertainment. Those with more expendable income might be willing to accept the expense, but it would further push those with smaller incomes, or no income, to the social fringe.

Collectively, Multnomah County residents - through taxes - fund the library system, keeping it free and open to anyone. Multnomah County Library Director Vailey Oehlke told Pamplin Media Group recently that it tries to target services to those in greatest need, whether it be job-seekers who need computer access to find employment, or literacy programs for the children of immigrants. Oehlke told us the Rockwood branch in East Multnomah County is in the lowest-income portion of the county, adding, 'It's one of our busiest libraries.'

Of course, if libraries were privatized, we'd have to wonder about the willingness of operators to invest in new branch locations. And if Multnomah County's libraries had been privatized several years ago, would Troutdale have its new branch today?

This study by the Cascade Policy Institute no doubt emerged because the Multnomah County commissioners are scheduled to decide by March 6 on whether or not to go to the voters in May 2012 to create a library tax district. This study - and its obvious foregone conclusion - no doubt will serve as the institute's statement of opposition.

Regardless of the direction taken by the county commissioners, we're convinced that county residents are comfortable with the idea of supporting libraries and keeping them free and open for everyone - including libertarians.