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or Amenities?

american libraries 


august/september 2009

by Eleanor Jo Rodger


include current technologies. But it’s a fuzzy mix of language about importance, equity, and use that we apply to seek support for our budgets these days. At the desks of public funders, pleas for support in hard times sort themselves into two piles—community amenities and community necessities. Their decisions usually reflect an intuitive sense, shared by their constituents, of which is which and why. In the realm of public management, “necessities” are understood to be those things that people have a right to because they are strongly held to be part of a socially valuable condition, such as an absence of danger in daily life. Funders and citizens believe they have a right to safe neighborhoods so fire and police services are supported as necessities. Publicly provided necessities are subject to citizen indignation when people perceive they are not distributed fairly. Periodic agitation for equitable schools, police patrols, and firefighter availability is familiar in most communities. “Amenities” are publicly provided services that respond to individual preferences and are usually publicly funded because of economies of scale. For example, if the rationale for garbage collection is to keep neighborhoods looking neat, it can rightly be understood as an amenity because it offers aesthetic pleasure to individuals. Public libraries don’t fit neatly into one category or another because we do not do just one thing. We do many things for many people. Some of our services may be understood as amenities, some as necessities. The great debate in the latter decades of the 19th century about whether fiction should be included in public library collections was intuitively rooted in this amenity/necessity distinction. Did reading fiction contribute to making democracy work better (the desired social condition) or did it merely serve the personal preferences of some citizens, making it an amenity? We smoothed over the issue by proclaiming the value of reading itself, no matter the nature of the text. As a profession we have swung between explaining ourselves as an important amenity and as a valued necessity. In fact, some of our services are appropriately understood in each category. Most public libraries doing surveys to discover why people use their services find that more than 50% of their uses are for “leisure reading or personal interest.” The resources and services that support this use are properly understood as amenities in the realm

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