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Fox9’s library assault!

Last December, I wrote a column asking why local TV news didn’t follow its cable cousins and become more partisan.

Last December, I wrote a column asking why local TV news didn’t follow its cable cousins and become more partisan. You can click through for the reasons, but the bottom line is, it’s not good for the bottom line.

So I was somewhat startled when media pal Tom Elko pointed me to a remarkable outburst by Fox9 anchor Jeff Passolt.

Here’s the set-up:

Last Sunday, the Pioneer Press did a story on Lake Elmo possibly losing its Washington County Library due to under-use. On Monday, Fox9 got Lake Elmo mayor Dean Johnston to come on the evening news for an interview.

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What followed was several minutes of sparring. Passolt likened lightly used libraries to “Blockbusters and Hollywood Videos and all of these video stores all over the place, and nobody used them anymore and they had to shut down.”

Johnston offered that Lake Elmo might opt out of Washington County’s system, redirecting the $320,000 residents pay in library taxes so the library could open on nights and weekends. That, he suggested, would increase usage.

Passolt: “So you’re saying no to the belt-tightening even though they’re paying the tax, you’re going to just shift it the other way and then property taxes may increase even more … I want to mention something else…”

Johnston, flabbergasted: “No, no, no — I didn’t say that, Jeff …”

As local evening news goes, this was practically a cable-hot confrontation. The unscripted exchange wouldn’t be out of place on Fox News, much less Fox9. But even though I’m the tax-tolerant son of a librarian, I don’t think Passolt’s taxophobia was out of bounds. The cost, and the city’s ability to run the library, are fair questions.

The true weirdness came the end. Passolt, obviously caught up in the adrenalized moment, shifted his aim westward, concluding with this mini-editorial:

“…and I never even got to the part about these big cities who are spending all this money like the city of Minneapolis for a Taj Mahal library down there that looks like it’s empty half of the time, too. We’re in a real dilemma here, trying to figure out if it’s time to raise property taxes or cut spending, and unfortunately libraries just aren’t being used the way they used to be anyway, with the Internet and all these other things.”


As a Minneapolis taxpayer who voted for the downtown library, I’ll admit I’ve had my second thoughts about the tax bite — especially when the city’s cash-strapped library board wound up tossing the system to Hennepin County. Passolt’s Taj Mahal reference was unusually snide for an anchor, but hey, it’s a matter of opinion.

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However, this was the second time in the segment Passolt suggested libraries are becoming ghost towns. That may have heads nodding on his KQ Morning Show appearances, but Hennepin County library officials say it’s untrue.

I asked library communications manager Jodi Monson for the past three years of Hennepin circulation stats. I limited the dataset to libraries that had been open and unrenovated during that period (what retailers call “same-store sales”).

We wound up with 25 suburban libraries — Minneapolis wasn’t statistically integrated until last year — and here are the number of items circulated:

2007: 12,857,213
2008: 12,848,222
2009: 13,032,965

At worst, that’s sideways, not down. As for system-wide visitor counts, 2.6 million in the first two quarters of 2009, and 2.6 million in the first two quarters of 2010.

What about that “half-empty” “Taj Mahal” library? Visitor count is up significantly in the same period — from 411,252 in 2009 to 523,668 this year.

Undoubtedly, some credit goes to the Twins stadium tax, which allowed the downtown library to open on Mondays beginning in February. You could argue that’s a waste of tax dollars, but it seems to prove if you extend the hours, they will come.

Since Passolt used his “half-empty” observation, I’ll counter with a couple of my own.

First, not everyone has a computer — if you’ve ever tried to get a terminal at the library, they are usually full or nearly so. Second, while there may be forces pushing people away from the physical library, the bad economy seems to be pushing folks toward it. It’s a lot cheaper to borrow that book than to buy or download one.

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That’s not to say the Lake Elmo library should survive, or that all library spending is justified. But when it comes to popularity, libraries don’t deserve the slagging Passolt gave them.