Seeing through the fog to our libraries’ value

*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on January 14, 2019. It can also be found online here, an image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.

screen shot 2019-01-14 at 4.26.50 am

The Pikes Peak Library District has unfortunately been dragged onto the battlefield in the community’s war over homelessness. And the fog in this war threatens to obscure the PPLD’s exceptional contribution to our entire community.

Starting today, as was reported in these pages last week, the PPLD has outlawed anyone on library grounds overnight at four campuses: Penrose (downtown), East, Old Colorado City, and Library 21c. Homeless camping has skyrocketed in those places, and the numbers recently hit 90 per night in some instances. There were fights, and, as PPLD Chief Librarian and CEO John Spears said, it became a health risk that was simply not “sustainable.” Yet, Spears stressed, though the new policy prohibits overnighters next to library buildings, it will not restrict anyone during normal hours, including the homeless, so long as they observe library rules. As members of the community, the homeless “have every right to be there as well.”

What should we make of this policy that welcomes the homeless during the day—and sanctions their presence at night?

First, the PPLD’s policy strikes the sensible balance between real and imagined risks. The real risk of overnight camping next to library facilities includes campfires that get out of control. Fires at libraries can cause immense damage: the Los Angeles Public Library suffered over one million destroyed and damaged books in a 1986 fire. More importantly, the PPLD policy encourages the better option for the homeless: nearby overnight shelters, with cots, bathrooms, heat, and light.

Of course there are those who would certainly go farther and suggest a blanket ban on all homeless from library facilities. I recently spoke with a parent who will not take children to the library anymore, despite living a baseball’s toss from one, over worries about homeless individuals there and the fear of potential attendant health and safety risks. To some, this parent’s concerns seem reasonable.

But still, this is dead wrong. Those unfortunate to be without shelter do have health challenges, but they certainly aren’t the rabid zombies some make them out to be. On balance, the homeless pose no immediate health risk, and so are indeed safe to walk amongst the shelves and other patrons at the local library.

More importantly, to restrict the homeless from libraries would be to throw away one of our most effective (and cost-effective) swords in the fight against homelessness. Economic empowerment often starts at the library.

How do you apply for a new job, to move up the economic ladder, without high-speed internet access? Answer: You go to the library.

And for this societal function, and more, the PPLD punches well above its weight. It’s 30 to 40 percent more efficient than comparable Colorado library systems like those in Pueblo, Denver, and Douglas County.

Recently, in the course of my own research on one of the smallest branches in the PPLD (Manitou Springs), I stumbled on the American Library Association’s “Library Value Calculator” (www.ala.org/advocacy/library-value-calculator). This tool helps users place an estimated value on everything checked out at the library. It makes sense that when someone checks out a book or a DVD—that was worth something to them. It had value. Because otherwise they’d have had to buy that book or DVD.

I used the Calculator to estimate how much value Manitou’s little library contributes to the community. The result shocked me.

I found an after-tax community value (or “profit”) of $592,905.65 in 2017. More impressively, the public’s return on investment was $3.05 for every dollar that went to support the library, a tremendous upside.

And by factoring in door count, I determined that every person who walked through the library’s doors in 2017 earned a value that averaged at least $11.83 (again, after taxes).

I write “at least” because these figures represent only the tangible stuff that we can count. It completely excludes a whole lot of other important bits of value the library routinely provides: Wi-Fi, newspaper and magazine reading (read but unchecked out), skimmed books, quiet study sessions, etc.

So don’t be distracted by a few tough headlines over the new homeless policy at the library. The fog in that war may obscure the PPLD’s real contribution to our community for a while, but facts are facts: Our library system is extremely valuable to everyone in the Pikes Peak region.

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