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OPINION: The Sad Reasons Why Amazon's #1 Reading City Doesn't Belong on the List

Author challenges Alexandria's #1 ranking as "Most Well-Read City" by Amazon.

"Alexandria’s politicians just are not letting the library system live up to its potential," author says. Patch archive photo
"Alexandria’s politicians just are not letting the library system live up to its potential," author says. Patch archive photo

(Editor's note: This opinion piece originally appeared on LibraryCity and is republished here with permission from the author. David Rothman is a former poverty-beat reporter, now editor-publisher of LibraryCity. He has written on the national digital library cause, for publications ranging from TheAtlantic.com to the Chronicle of Higher Education.)

By David Rothman

Amazon has once again named America’s “Top 20 Most Well-Read Cities,” based on its sales of  books, magazines and newspapers.

Just as before, the winner is Alexandria, Virginia, my hometown, which should be able to afford a book-rich public library system. This scenic Washington suburb on the Potomac River pays the city manager $245K a year, more than Vice President Joe Biden earns.

Yet the Alexandria library’s budget for books and other materials is well below the national average despite the needs of the city’s many African-Americans, Hispanics and and low-income people. Around half of Alexandria’s students qualify for free school lunches, and as LibraryCity has noted before, they aren’t exactly hearing their parents read Jane Austen to them.

Simply put, we’re talking about two different realities—Amazon’s and the actual Alexandria’s. And we’re also talking about a gargantuan reading gap between millionaires in elegant Old Town neighborhoods and first-graders living in public housing and just learning English. Guess who enjoys more influence?

Less money for library books in Alexandria, even after a tax increase

Thanks in part to all the business siphoned off by Amazon, this place limps along with just one store of any size selling new books to a general market. Dan Brown’s Inferno was the biggest Amazon title here as mentioned in the “Most Well-Read” hype. But if you really want to understand the folly of depicting Alexandria as a literary paradise, you need to start with the city’s book-hostile library budget.

U.S. expenditures on public library content are a miserable $4 per capita, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Alexandria spends only around $2.60. Recalculating with more detailed information, I see the number is not just “less” than the $3.25 mentioned earlier, but significantly so. And even the $2.60 will shrink slightly as a result of a fiscal year 2015 cutback from the current $389,754 to $364,226 for a city of about 150,000. 

The imposition of new taxes and fees makes my hometown’s miserliness toward library books even more of an embarrassment. While I’m grateful that city officials have acknowledged the need for more library resources, the actual money didn’t materialize this year despite well-presented pleas from library defenders.

For now, I’ll still keep my expectations low despite my hopes, especially in regard to library books as a percentage of the total library budget.

Would you believe, the approximately $47 per capita that Alexandria spends on libraries is above the U.S. average of around $36. Although there is room for improvement—here’s to more spending on outreach to keep books on citizens’ minds and help our many English language learners and others with special needs!—this is hardly a total disaster even with high D.C.-area salaries factored in. But collections now account for just 5.3 percent of a $7-million library budget, compared to the national average of 11-12 percent.  

Alexandria’s politicians just are not letting the library system live up to its potential. Librarians can talk up books endlessly, but they should be able to deliver the actual goods after people browse the catalogs in person or electronically. Otherwise all the energetic promotion might actually backfire in some cases when people can’t find what they expect.  Patrons want titles that match their exact needs and interests, in line with the Five Laws of Library Science, and they hate waiting lists—more common than they should be in Alexandria.

Along the way, let’s not buy the argument that our city’s leaders would rather that the money go for services for the poor than for more books. Last year Alexandria politicians talked about once again cutting back library hours. Just the ticket for helping low-income people juggling around more than one job, right? Besides, research shows that poor people are the very ones most eager for more books

Twice the library circulation rate per capita in less miserly Arlington

The results of the stinginess toward books aren’t surprising, with or without Alexandria’s demographics factored in. Alexandria’s library circulation per capita is about average for the U.S., at approximately 7.5 items in 2011, but keep in mind that most adults here hold bachelors degrees or higher, and that “power readers” are almost surely driving up the numbers.  

Compared to Arlington, Virginia, next door, with double the circulation at around 15, Alexandria is an under-performer even if we consider Arlington’s even more upscale demographics. Not so coincidentally, Arlington’s library materials budget for fiscal year 2014 is $1.2 million or $5.66 per capita, easily twice Alexandria’s. Yes, we have a high card-holder count. But ultimately it’s circulation that really matters.

Don’t blame Alexandria Library Director Rose Dawson and her librarians for Alexandria being a far cry from “most well-read” in real life. Blame the politicians and the top city officials they’ve appointed.

What does all this say about our local leaders’ civic and personal values and fiscal priorities? The sentiments of City Manager Rashad Young, the $245K city manager, might provide some clues. We know the going rate for city managers is high, but as far as I know, there wasn’t further talk of even a tiny, symbolic salary giveback and a temporary salary freeze after I called attention to planned $25,538 cutback in the materials budget. 

Ironically, Young sits on the executive board of the Urban Libraries Council. He is the author of an essay called "More Than Just Books: The Role of Public Libraries in Building Community and Promoting Civic Engagement." I'm gung ho on libraries as promoters of community and engagement. But within a city budget of about $637 million, can't these laudable activities coexist a little more harmoniously with books? We need it all—reading and much more. Alas, however, Young’s salary and benefits together exceed half of the library’s money set aside for “just” books and other items for all of Alexandria.

In past decades, Alexandria’s city managers and power brokers supported well-stocked public libraries, but now we’re down an outrageous 40 percent from spending on collections four years ago. Perhaps at least in part due to Amazon,  City Hall may feel a little less urgency nowadays. Both paper and e-books are a mere click away. 

That’s wonderful for already-well-read families of the kind most likely to vote, but not so good for the others. According to federal statistics, a typical American student between 15 and 19 years of age spends only around 12 minutes reading, out of 5.4 hours of daily leisure time. 

And remember—that’s an average, not the statistic for minorities and children from low-income families here in Alexandria. Around half of Alexandrians are members of minorities. Commendably the local NAACP was among the most outspoken opponents of the library budget cuts. Even if local schools do require some reading beyond the regular assigned variety, that’s a long way from having a library system full of books that children and their parents might truly want to pick up just for the fun of it.

I know. Librarians and books—yes, we need the former to help people discover and absorb the latter—compete against money for police officers and prenatal care. But Alexandria’s power brokers still don’t get it. A major UK study documents the link between recreational reading and better performance on tests. Public libraries have a special role to play. 

The good ones try to reach not only young people but also their role models, their parents, who should enjoy an ample supply of both e-books and paper books on topics they care about. “The combined effect on children's progress of reading books often, going to the library regularly and reading newspapers at 16,” a summary of the study says, “was four times greater than the advantage children gained from having a parent with a degree.” So let’s look beyond our challenged schools. By way of well-promoted library books, let’s reach the disadvantaged in their homes, too.

Even worse than Alexandria: Miami, Amazon’s second ‘most well read’

As disturbing as the library-book cutbacks over the years have been in Alexandria, they are nothing compared to total library reductions suffered at various times in Amazon’s “most well-read” city number two, Miami, Florida, where library circulation is only four items per capita. Mayor Carlos Giminez has even raised questions about the future need for public libraries. And I don’t blame Giminez alone. As in Alexandria, Miami’s other power brokers perhaps don’t need well-stocked public libraries

They can merely click and download, assuming they care for books in the first place. At least Giminez and others are now talking about new tax revenue for libraries (check out past library-related millage cuts). But as in Alexandria, one wonders about priorities. Miami has spent millions on cruise ship subsidies. Just what does that say about values? It’s as if, in slashing library budgets over the years, politicians have decided to lower the collective IQ, so the voters will be stupid enough to reelect them. Other questions arise. Will a politician like Giminez ever be able give a commencement speech, urging students to respect books and learning, when he so often has done the opposite?

In some other cities with high Amazon sales per capita, civic leaders have been less stingy toward libraries—information that suggests we cannot blame the budgetary failures in Alexandria and Miami on Amazon alone. Far from it. Some other sales champs for Amazon have truly high levels of public library spending. 

No, we’re not talking about perfect cause-effect, and let me confess that I myself am a steady Amazon customer because of prices, selection and service (not to mention the Alexandria public library’s considerable shortcomings). The idea here isn’t to say, “Shut down Amazon.” Rather it’s to say, “We still need well-stocked libraries.” In my guts, however, I have no doubt that the Amazon factor to some extent can explain local politicians’ Scrooge acts.

Yes, Virginia, there is a ‘library crisis’

Quick easy books from Amazon and elsewhere might also help account for the apathy of too many in the media toward these issues. Recently I wrote a reporter for a major newspaper to suggest a story on funding for library books. I don’t know if he’s an Amazon customer. But it was clear he wasn’t exactly teeming with empathy for Americans who rely on their libraries for content.

"Let's begin with the obvious but basic question,” he replied. “How much of a library crisis is there? I've never seen a convincing argument either way."

Huh? The U.S. spends just $1.2 billion or so on public library content annually—around 1/65th of the net worth of just Bill Gates. Every or just about every billionaire on the Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest Americans is worth more than the amount spent annually on public library books and other items.

And now along comes the Amazon press release, followed by some often-superficial news stories depicting Alexandria as a “well-read” city, despite the reading gap between our haves and have-nots! At the national and international levels,  the super rich have claimed a disproportionate share of wealth and income. But it doesn’t take a Thomas Piketty to understand that so many inequalities of opportunity begin in our own hometowns. Alexandria Mayor William Euille and at least one council member grew up in public housing projects. Shouldn’t today’s project kids in Alexandria benefit from first-class libraries?

While a national digital library endowment funded by our fast-growing crop of billionaires could help and in fact is a "must," it will not be a panacea. Nothing can substitute for good local priorities. Some say the ancient Library of Alexandria in Egypt was destroyed at least in part by budget cuts. Let this not happen to the library system in Alexandria, Virginia, or any others.

A proposed cellphone e-book campaign: No replacement for a well-funded library, but still helpful

I do see some hope if we look beyond the present. Justin Wilson, for example, although one of the city council members who favored the latest cut in the library materials budget, likes the digital library endowment idea and cares far more about tech matters than the average politician. Good for him on both fronts! Ideally, library friends can turn Councilman Wilson around on library budget matters. Perhaps the results of a forthcoming library utilization survey will help even though a full literacy audit—mentioned in a past LibraryCitypost—would be a much better way to determine spending levels.

Only two council members, Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg and veteran councilwoman Del Pepper, opposed the current book-budget reductions; thanks, ladies! May the council be more generous toward books in the future! 

At the same time, I’m aware of the fiscal challenges in Amazon’s “most well-read” city despite the overall prosperity of the town, and in a future post I’ll share some friendly suggestions I’ve passed on to Justin in that context. I’ll tell how Alexandria could economically promote the use of e-book apps on cellphones—ideally with ample encouragement and support from librarians or volunteers. 

Even many elementary school students around here tote cellphones, given how far they’ve come down in price. Technology can’t magically eliminate the need for decent funding of local libraries. But it can help. Meanwhile I’m delighted to learn that the Alexandria Library Foundation is working to help close the $25K gap in the materials budget, and perhaps some of the money could go toward the proposed experimentation. You can donate here. I just did.

Disclosure: I’m an NAACP member (although the views here are strictly my own), and I hope that library advocates in other cities will also join. Library issues so often are really civil rights issues in disguise, given the empowerment that books and other library items and services offer.

Related: How Low Can Our Book Budgets Go?, an American Libraries article by Steve Coffman, vice president of Library Systems and Services. I'm not too keen on his company’s mission. But oh how right he is about the stupidity of trimming library book budgets! I’m right with you on that one, Steve!

David Rothman May 31, 2014 at 04:44 AM
I stand corrected, SD. When it comes to the percentage of the library operating budget spent on books and other items, Alexandria is a suburb of Natchez, Mississippi. In fact, statistics from the evil feds say we're worse than Natchez if we think in percentages rather than dollar levels. Both Alexandria and Natchez are well below the national average of about $4 per capita. Anyone care to comment meaningfully one way or another on the numbers and opinions in the article? If not, this is yet more proof that we don't belong on Amazon's "most well-read" list. Let's do something. A great first step would be for ALL council members to pledge to restore Alexandria's library book spending to at least the U.S. average per capita. Meanwhile kudos to Allison Silberberg and Del Pepper for caring more than the other politicians did during the budget debate!
Andrea Grenadier May 31, 2014 at 10:21 AM
This piece was long overdue, so a million thanks to David Rothman for researching and writing it. Everyone on the City Council should read this, and then do something about it. The resources for the local branches are paltry, and the kids that frequent my local Queen Street branch need not only books, but laptops, and not old desktop computers. For some of them, it's the only computer to which they have access. All of this costs a lot, of course, but the library can serve so many more people than it does. This should be a priority.
Andrea Grenadier May 31, 2014 at 10:27 AM
And I will add that we're WAY behind the curve when it comes to e-books and e-readers. We have a ton of books on tape but no Kindles? To paraphrase an old line, "if you think libraries are expensive, try ignorance." In this city, all of our kids need and deserve support, and not just ones who can afford to buy bestsellers on Amazon. (Let me highly recommend my neighborhood used bookstore, Book Bank, when you're paring down your book collections.)
Paul Lachelier May 31, 2014 at 12:52 PM
Kudos to Rothman for a well timed and well written article on the state of Alexandria's library system relative to Amazon's claim. One suggestion: how about a cut in the city's highest paid staff's salaries, say a 20% cut on those paid $175,000 or more, as a contribution to paying for a better library system? Surely, the richest staff, paid what puts them in the top 5% of American incomes, would agree to a salary cut to help pay for better libraries for our kids, our families in need, and the wider public. And if they leave for higher pay elsewhere, then we know where their commitments lie. Let's address some of the core causes of America's rising inequality, starting with governments supposedly serving the widest publics, yet which catapult selected staff into the ranks of the richest Americans even as they cry poor when it comes to paying for public services.
David Rothman June 01, 2014 at 09:01 AM
Thanks, Andrea and Paul. Andrea is so, so right about the need for libraries to be able to lend out e-book-capable devices, especially to older people who could benefit from the ability to enlarge the words or hear text to speech. What's more, as I've noted, libraries can help people learn to read off cellphones if this solution is right for them. And, yes, Paul, I've been thinking the same thing about Rashad Young and the like. Good riddance if they want to leave Alexandria, so we can replace them with people with a passion for public service. Perhaps Mr. Young's $245K salary and the library cuts can be the BRAC-133 of the next city council elections; incumbents please note. We haven't heard talk from Mr. Young of even a small, symbolic giveback. The same man who's on the executive board of the Urban Libraries Council? Both the Y Word and the L word should come up again and again when civic groups are considering their endorsements of council candidates. So I'm thinking presently. At the same time, I believe in the powers of redemption. It is not too late for Mr. Young to offer a little giveback and agree to a temporary freeze in total compensation for the next few years. He and others in local government can also pledge to bring Alexandria in FY 2016 up to national standards for public library collections, $4 per capita. If they can honor the memory of Vola Lawson in many other ways, so much the better. Read Drew Hansen's well-done obituary of her (http://bit.ly/1oX4Nhv) and you'll appreciate what we've lost. Mr. Young, do not look to your overpaid peers in other cities for inspiration. Vola Lawson's example should suffice.

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