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Our Opinion • Close book on bad library idea

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

As we reported Oct. 25 at Portlandtribune.com, it's important to understand the motivation of the institute as a fierce libertarian advocate for small government. We really don'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. We fear that privatizing county libraries would only heap new expenses on the people least able to afford them. It's that 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 new study, 'Checking out the options: Creating stable funding and superior service for the Multnomah County Library,' suggests that user fees could replace county tax support of the library system. That fee structure might contain, for example, a 50-cent charge on every checked out item, 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 stop 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 says the system tries to target services to people in greatest need, whether it be job seekers who need computer access to find employment or literacy programs for the children of immigrants.

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

The study by the Cascade Policy Institute no doubt emerged because the Multnomah County commissioners are scheduled to decide by March 6 on whether to ask voters in May 2012 to create a library tax district. The 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.