Sunday, June 3, 2018

Actual savings: The public library

A while ago, I read an article online—I forget exactly where—about the many benefits of visiting your local public library and all the things it has to offer besides books. (It wasn't this Money Crashers article, but it was along the same lines.) I was entirely in agreement with this, since next to our Twitch subscription (through which we watch our beloved Critical Role), our local library is our primary source of entertainment. We check out books, borrow movies and TV shows on DVD, and attend the occasional free event there. It's probably the nearest thing either of us has to a "third place."

But some readers, it turns out, don't share this view. In the comments at the bottom of the article, one sourpuss groused that the library isn't really "free" entertainment; you have to pay for it with your tax dollars, whether you want to use it or not. Apparently, he did not consider this a good value.

Now, it seems to me that if you have to support your public library whether you use it or not, it makes sense to use it as much as possible and get your money's worth. But perhaps this fellow's beef was that he doesn't think the services the library provides will ever be worth what he spends on it in taxes. Is he right? Just how much does a public library really cost, and how much value does it provide?

For our local library, the first question is easy to answer. A copy of Highland Park's municipal budget, available on the town's website, reveals that 0.97% of our property taxes go to support the library. The budget says this works out to $114 per year for the average resident, but our house must be a little smaller than average; we paid about $7,110 in property taxes over the last fiscal year, which means we only spent about $70 to fund the library.

Here's what we get for that:
  • Borrowed books. First, and most obviously, we take out books—actual printed books—from the library. My account on the library's website doesn't include a record of what I've borrowed recently, so I'm just going to assume conservatively that Brian and I take out an average of one book per month. If we bought these same books new, in paperback form, they'd probably cost an average of $12 each. So, for borrowed books alone, that's a $144 value.
  • Discounted books. In addition to borrowing books, we regularly buy them at the library's annual sale, at which donated books are sold at rock-bottom prices to raise money. Here's our haul from this year's sale: six small paperbacks (which would cost about $10 apiece retail), four larger ones (about $14 retail), and four hardcovers (maybe $20 retail). So this whole stack would have cost us $196 at a bookstore, and we paid only $22 for it—a savings of $174.
  • E-books. In addition to physical books, we regularly use our library card to take out e-books from the eLibrary. Here, again, I don't know the exact number we've borrowed between us in the past year, but I'll guess it was at least half a dozen. Kindle books typically cost between from $3 and $10, so figure an average of $6.50. On top of that, our library temporarily gave us a subscription this year to Hoopla Digital, with an allotment of four borrows per month. We didn't get too much use out of it before the library canceled the program, but Brian took out eight graphic novels that would probably have cost him $12 each to buy in a store. So that's another $135 worth of reads.
  • DVDs. Our town no longer boasts a video rental place, but we've hardly missed it thanks to the large and eclectic collection at the library. Matter of fact, its selections are probably of more interest to us than what we could have found at Blockbuster back when it was still operating in our area. It has everything from superhero movies to indie and foreign films, plus complete runs of all sorts of interesting TV series—some current, some canceled, and some BBC productions you can't easily get in the USA. We take out at least a couple of selections a month, usually TV series, thereby eliminating the need for a Netflix or Hulu subscription that would cost us $8 a month. So there's another $96 a year saved.
  • Live events. Lastly, we attend live events at the library from time to time, such as film screenings and poetry readings. For the most part, these aren't events we'd pay to attend if they weren't available for free, but they make a nice change of pace from staying in and watching TV or playing board games. Most recently, I took an afternoon class that taught how to use a sewing machine, complete with the materials needed to construct a small zippered pouch. Mine didn't quite come out beautifully (I forgot to put the foot down at one point after re-threading), but it's still sturdy enough to hold pens or dice. I checked online to see what a comparable class would cost, and I found a two-hour session at a place in Brooklyn called Make Workshop for $80. So that's another $80 to add to the year's tally.
All told, in the past year our library card has saved us approximately $629 for a mere $70 in taxes. That's such a good deal that we actually feel a bit guilty about it, so we voluntarily pony up an extra $100 each year as a donation and consider it money well spent. If it enables the library to continue providing the kind of value we get from it now, it's an excellent investment.

In fact, if you look at it in terms of cost per hour of entertainment, the library is just about the best deal around. Since I not only read books but also read them aloud to Brian, a single novel can provide anywhere from 2 to 20 hours of entertainment; if you figure 6 hours on average, the 40 books we got from the library this year (borrowed, bought, and downloaded) provided us with about 240 hours' worth. Our DVD borrows, since they're mostly TV series with multiple episodes, add at least another 150 hours or so, and the events we attend add maybe 10 more hours per year. So that's a good 400 hours of entertainment, and even with our additional donation, it costs us only $170—less than 43 cents per hour. That's cheaper than a Redbox rental ($1 for 2 hours), cheaper than a Netflix subscription ($8 a month for about 10 hours), cheaper than most secondhand books (about $4 for maybe 6 hours)—cheaper, in fact, than almost anything you can do for fun.

Now, I realize our public library is probably better than most, especially for a town this small. But then, others that are cheaper probably cost even less in taxes, so the locals are getting what they pay for. In short, I'd say anyone who thinks a public library isn't a worthwhile investment either hasn't done the math or just doesn't know how to have fun.

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