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In defense of libraries, both home and public

Two library-related stories especially caught my eye this week, one good, one bad.

First, the good news: According to this story in the excellent online journal Miller-McCune, kids who grow up in houses with lots of books have huge academic advantages.

“Growing up in a home with 500 books would propel a child 3.2 years further in education, on average, than would growing up in a similar home with few or no books,” the study, which tracks 73,000 children from 24 nations, finds. Chinese families with good home libraries outpace their peers by 6.6 years. That means the difference between going to college or not, or finishing college. So, I’m taking this as permission to grab just as many 25-cent Hardy Boys novels as I can find at the garage sales this spring, hang the lack of shelf space in our house.

Of course, not every family can afford 500 books, even at 25 cents apiece, which makes one hope that frequenting the public library has a similarly positive effect. (Besides, there are 58 original Hardy Boys books. Sheesh.)

But the other item I read has me worried again for the future of our libraries. According to the Star Tribune, the library program Club Book paid $45,000 for a four-hour appearance by Neil Gaiman at the Stillwater library. This money came from a fund specifically allocated to programming, not to book-buying or to staffing and hours. And Gaiman re-donated the fee back to libraries. But predictably, this unleashed the comments-section mob of torch-bearing, anti-library Tea Party types, who will no doubt think of this item when it comes to voting to support their local libraries.

That’s a lot of money, to be sure, but author Sarah Palin’s been bringing in more than double that for appearances, and a quick look at this talent site finds plenty of other writers charging in the $30K to $50K range for an appearance, including Alice Walker and Anderson Cooper.

I guess that’s just what these things cost. If you want to see people who charge more, you’ll have to look to the sports category.

Reporter Kevin Giles notes that 500 people turned out for the event, which strikes me as a failure of marketing; Gaiman could easily fill out a Pen Pals event or larger venue.

On the other hand, how often does a writer of this rock star stature come to Stillwater? It seems kind of fair that the east metro town get a chance at the kind of experience one usually has to drive into town to enjoy. Gaiman’s very entertaining and inspiring speech was broadcast on MPR; you can listen to it here, as thousands of other people have, and it’s archived for use by fans, libraries, and children  — who make up much of his audience.

The story also fails to describe exactly how important Gaiman is to readers and libraries. He’s that rare example of a popular writer who puts out thoughtful, original, high-quality books — the kind that make kids smarter. He’s won a pile of awards for his adult fiction, but last year, he won the Newbury Award, the highest honor a children’s book can receive, for the “The Graveyard Book” (wonderful for all ages), which spent 61 weeks in the top 10 on the New York Timesbestseller list.

"I would not be who I am or where I am if it weren't for libraries," said Gaiman, who describes himself as a "feral child" who spent his days at the local library.

Gaiman grew up in Britain, and I’ve always thought it amazing that he decided to settle in Western Wisconsin. After the rude response to this appearance, it seems unlikely that he’ll cross the border again soon. I hope he doesn’t think all Minnesotans are anti-intellectual jerks.

As for the library, I hope they use their funds carefully,but continue to provide us with books and experiences most people couldn’t buy on our own. Because, librarians, we’d be even dumber without you.

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Comments (12)

What, pray tell, does Sarah Palin have to do with the Stillwater fiasco? Her appearances are paid for out of private funds.

The $45,000 paid to this pseudo-renowned writer was paid out of taxpayer funds. What part of this aren't you able to comprehend.

You lost me as an even occasional reader when you used such a wide brush to paint all those who disagreed with this payment as "torch-bearing, anti-library Tea Party types."

Your screed wasn't "in defense of libraries at schools." It was merely a platform for you to vent your ill-formed views against folks with whom you disagree.

I mention Palin's fees (and Walker's) to show that Gaiman's fees are in line with what other high-profile writers command — or lower. As for the Tea Party reference, wade into the Strib comment section and you'll see for yourself who's commenting, and how.

Yeah, it stinks to pay taxes for something you don't like or care about. I know; the same Legacy Funding bill that paid for library events is also paying for this big ballpark down the street from my house. As a taxpayer, I'm paying part of the hundreds of millions of dollars going into making traffic and pollution around my house worse. I never went to old old stadium, and I'm sure I'll never set foot in this place either. In theory, I object to my taxes paying for it (and for the other stadiums I'll end up paying for). In reality, I have to accept that tax dollars get spread around, and if we're going to publicly support sports, it's only fair we publicly the arts — even though it's at much, much smaller level. So, as an arts writer, I have to be happy that the money is at least going to someone pretty populist and well known — someone that the greatest number of non-stadium fans will enjoy, say.

Plus, I suspect that when the librarians chose Gaiman, they knew there was a pretty darn good chance he'd donate the money right back to libraries. He's a pretty vocal friend and supporter of what they do in those places.

The relationship between MinnPost and the Club Book folks paying Gaiman $45,000 should have been disclosed. That's a big failure on your part. If you're defending a business or promotional partner, then that should have been disclosed.

Also, I agree with Hal: No way any library-sponsored speaking deserves $45K, especially a niche author like Gaiman.

When Libraries go dark...a new video game?

Visualize a world where books are banned indiscriminately from libraries by ambitious mayors; when public libraries shorten their hours and closing is a probable eventuality for lack of funding by arrogant governors...when open societies become closed to ideas for lack of interest, and the attendant deadening of curiousity or absence of courage to explore other cultures or ideas beyond one's own doorstep is acceptable and encouraged...when war games dominate public reading rooms.

When libraries go dark, how soon before security agencies will start investigating "the book" as enemy number one and those who read other than prescribed texts will be incarcerated?

There's a piece of fiction that should entice the video-challenged, semi-illiterate child into our libraries.

But so much for fantasy fiction...it could never happen here.

When Libraries go dark...a new video game?

Imaging the largest city in Minnesota where a while back the head of that cities libraries would allow no "censorship" so no "filters" were allowed. Some users were getting "too interested" so this library head had internet terminals but in the back of the stacks where other library patrons would see the "interestedness". Now image this library head commenting "I didn't see anything but then again I don't get out of my office much". (ha! ha!) Now image the totalitarian library board in this largest city in Minnesota unanimously of this 30 year library employee. (Why that is retaliation for Fighting censorship!)

That was the Minneapolis Library porn filter debacle. I still recall on supporter using the scenario "Imagine a poor immigrant comes up with a cure for breast cancer, want to research it on the library internet and gets blocked when they type in "breast". Oh puuleeze!

Even among the "tea party types" the elitist Minnpost writer disses, I read the complete Strib discussion postings. Not one mentioned banning of removing Gaimen's books from the libraries. Heck I get spare copies of some arcane things and the libraries take them and makes them available. (One Minneapolis library has a collection of donated "bungalow books" including a few spares I received).

Diagram the term "free speech". Gaimen (nor me) are being suppressed by not being paid to speak at a library. Note the word "free". If Gaimen's speech is squelched he can speak through his website as I can). If Gaimen wants to speak at my local library for free I'll drive him to and from the event! If I speak at my local library on my current interest, a potential way to fight modern day sea piracy I'll do it for free. (just reserve me a parking spot or drive me to and from) If "suppressed" it's on one of my websites http://newzep.com

I like our library system. The crown jewel of it is the regional to national link that allows me to get rare material, especially, pre-internet but you have some morons, including this Washington County administrator running it.

Ms. Goetzman, your comments in response to my post were a lot of palaver, but you skipped around the issues.

1. Gaiman is NOT a high-profile writer; at most he's a niche author.

2. You're still tarring with a wide brush. Your "Tea Party" reference is bogus no matter how you choose to frame it. Asking for fiscal sanity is not evidence one is a Tea Party supporter. I read all the comments in the STrib. Your comments don't match the facts.

3. The fact that taxes paid for Gaiman's appearance isn't the issue; the $45,000 is.

4. A $45,000 handout to one writer to speak to 500 people is not spreading the tax money around and "publicly supporting the arts."

5. Your animus towards sports has nothing to do with the issue.

6. I, too, would like to know more about the relationship between Club Book and you/MinnPost.

I guess I should address the connection between Club Book and me/MinnPost, but in all honesty, I know nothing about it. I'm a very occasional freelancer who contributes occasional posts on books/libraries topics because I like books. I apologize to my editors for not investigating before I wrote on the topic, but they know they don't pay me enough to follow the scene in any detail. I am aware that there's some other book content on the site, but I haven't read it; I'm too busy with parenting and working, and I just don't have time. I'm using my Mother's Day "gift" of a couple hours of kid-free time respond to Hal here to 1.) let you know that I didn't write about Gaiman out of some secret allegiance to the Book Club thing, whatever it is. (And really, I don't know, and don't have time to investigate. My kids will be coming back any minute now.) and 2.) I want to defend Neil Gaiman. I don't know by what measure one becomes something more than a "niche" writer, but with his books for kids, Gaiman definitely transcends the niche he was in as an adult writer. (I have read his kids' books, but not his work for adults.) I guess you'd need to be a parent, a kid, or someone who works with kids to understand the magnitude of his presence in the genre. I would venture that every literate pre-teen in America is familiar with his books, or the movies made from his work. When I think about who the most "famous" writers in the Twin Cities are, he is certainly in the top 5, along with Kate DiCamillo, another Newbury award winner. And to me, as someone who thinks reaching young readers is even more important than adult readers, it struck me as smart that these two writers were included in the series. Other commenters suggested that the money should have gone to buying books, which is certainly true in theory, but in reality, the money was in a dedicated pool allocated specifically to events programming. Yes, they could have spent it on a summer reading programs, but I think the Friends groups have already taken care of that, and to be honest, I don't think those programs are all that effective. (Sorry, librarians.) Kids won't get excited about reading if you give them charts and stickers; they'll be excited about reading if they read a really good book. It'll make them want to read another. The Harry Potter books were great for that, and on every list of "what to read next," Gaiman's books come up. He may not be writing for your demographic, but he is most definitely one of the most important writers we have in these parts, both in terms of his talent and in terms of his ability to get kids reading. If the librarians has chosen a lesser-known writer, the tax payers wouldn't be any richer. (And remember, he re-donated most of the fee, and no one was surprised he did.) But the overall quality of the series would be diminished. Gaiman is a "rock star" in the literary world, and he lives here, so we may as well get to hear from him.

And since the minivan hasn't returned yet, I mention sports because of the connection between the stadium and this pool of library events funding dollars. We wouldn't have one without the other. Personally, I wouldn't have voted at all for this bill, considering the economy, etc. But here it is. It was sold to me as a bill that supports Minnesota's quality of life. We have major league sports, we have a vibrant arts scene, and we have good outdoors recreation opportunities. And these things make this a good place to live, and therefore good people want to live here, and therefore smart companies want to headquarter here so they can take advantage of these kinds of employees and therefore that increases the tax base, quality of life, etc. OK, fine.

And now the minivan is back, so I have to go. I won't have a chance to check back here, so if you want to yell at me some more, Hal, you can catch me via Facebook. I'll be happy to respond.

I am not sure that Legacy Funding is going to Target Field, given that the bill was signed before that particular Constitutional Amendment passed. Sales tax dollars, yes, but not the Legacy Fund. But it goes for hunting and fishing stuff, which I am sure you don't utilize (neither do I).

At any given time, we have only 50 governors and 2 major party VP candidates, so I question whether an author is really comparable in terms of honorarium. This is especially true if you consider that authors will often speak for free to promote their books. Why charge the fee and donate it back? Why not just speak for free? In any event, the market should decide his honorarium. So the question is what others will pay to hear him speak, not what others will pay to hear an entirely different speaker.

But the problem with your piece has nothing to do with honorarium or sports. It is the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc. Just because you live an a house with 500 books does not mean you will succeed. Having 500 books could mean that you are rich, that your kids don't have to work, that you are literate, or a whole host of other things. Having 500 books could be the result, not the cause.

Maybe it's a good thing there isn't an NBL (National Book League) in the style of the NFL where big investors and teams' owners buy and sell athletes like cattle headed for an abattoir; bodies damaged too often for the sake of profit by a few and the joy of the ticket holders.

Think of writers, good or bad; published or unpublished, trying to get even in the minor leagues in order to play in the 'arena'.

Ideas like footballs would be tossed and whomever can capture and tackle and run the 'word' the farthest with the highest degree of skill, wins the game and the 'writer' would be sought after because of his evidential skills; or his handler's ability to sell him to the highest bidder.

The more I explore the idea here, the more it looks like there may be a hidden, shadow league of sorts and the buying and selling of writers and their words does exist somewhere in the background; big leagues, small leagues...publishers like owners and managers are't too differant than NFL head honchos...so I leave this before my contradictions expose my initial fallacies for such an argument...we're all players making the team or waiting on the sidelines or cheering on others from the bleachers...and the word is merely a football in the arena of ideas...

I am a librarian, but I am not otherwise involved in Club Book. Still, there are a couple of points I'd like to make. First, it was not the Stillwater Public Library that planned and funded this program, but the Metropolitan Library Service Agency (MELSA), an alliance of all the public libraries in the metro area, and the event took place at the Stillwater Junior High, with the Stillwater Library acting as host. Also, as was mentioned, the money from the Legacy Amendment is targeted to programming and cannot be used for other purposes. The money for the current biennium was not received until October, and it had to be spent by the end of June or it would be lost. Under these circumstances, MELSA chose to take the opportunity to present a really special program, one that they could not otherwise afford.

"...it had to be spent by the end of June or it would be lost."

What does it mean that the money would be "lost"? Would someone take the dollar bills and throw them down a well? Or would the money go back to the state treasury to be spent on other taxpayer projects?

And what happened to the portion of the honorarium that the author "donated" back? Did that money also have to be spent by June? Or did it go to some library booster group that was not subject to the fiscal year spending requirements?

Let's put this in context. I am absolutely flabbergasted that anyone (much less two of the seven commenters on this story) would dismiss Neil Gaiman as a "niche author." If you think that's the case, odds are you quite simply don't read books.

Gaiman has been writing for a quarter-century in multiple media and genres, from comics to novels to short stories to screenplays to children's books. He's won the Hugo, the Nebula, the Stoker, and the Newbery, among many other awards. He's repeatedly had multiple books on the NYT bestsellers list. He is the literary world's equivalent of a rock star.

And anyone who's ever seen him in person knows that his live appearances are just as magical as his written work.

I have no problem whatsoever with public money being spent to promote the arts by bringing a speaker like Gaiman, an incredible arts advocate in every way, to speak to a packed house of people who otherwise wouldn't have a chance to see him.

For those who are curious, Gaiman himself has written about the controversy here: .

And FWIW, I also think the sports comparison is eminently relevant, since I *do* have a problem with public money being spent (in vastly larger quantities) in the form of corporate welfare for professional sports, something that doesn't contribute to our culture in any way that can even pretend to compare to the written word.