Book Smart: What’s the Value of a Library?

By JIM CURLEY | Jun 26, 2019

“A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” I thought of that line from Oscar Wilde’s play “Lady Windermere’s Fan” when I noticed something added to my checkout receipt when I took out a book from the LBI library in Surf City. The receipt said my recent book withdrawal saved me $19.99, which turned out to be the list price of the book I was borrowing.

Further, it said that I had saved almost $600 in the past year and almost $800 since I began using the library. These totals seemed off. I grant the $600 number for one year might be possible, but only $800 on years and years of constant book borrowing? After all, I had gotten my first Ocean County Library card back in the 1980s. I can’t believe that in the past year, I’ve saved three-quarters of my entire total, which covered more than three decades of taking out books. Something was wrong. I’ve relied on my hometown library more than that.

I guess this recent addition to the receipt is a marketing initiative, and “no worries” on my account if the goal of the marketer was to establish a price for my borrowings. I’ll ignore the fact that we do pay county taxes for the library’s book purchases, staff salaries, upkeep, etc. (On the most recent tax bill, I paid about $275 to support the county library. Still, I’ve saved about $325 for the year, using library calculations of the price of my borrowings.)

But that’s not the point. The value I’ve received from being a library member is incalculable. How do I put a price tag on such benefits? Ah, the value.

Because of the library, I discovered Brian Doyle and his brilliant novel, Mink River, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories, collected in Interpreter of Maladies. I went to our library to take out Terry Golway’s Machine Made, an interesting reappraisal of Tammany Hall; Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, a nonfiction view of Chicago during the 1890s; and Daniel Brown’s stirring study, The Boys in the Boat, a look at the 1936 Olympic rowing champions from Washington state.

At our library, I’ve been able to hear great lectures and concerts over the years – Ken Konchen on the Holocaust, Margaret Buchholz on Long Beach Island, the late John Sweet on fishing our waters, Gail Storm rocking Carole King, Rafael Morillo on artisanal bread, and that special St. Patrick’s Day treat, Tara, celebrating my Irish heritage in song.

I’ve also been privileged to give a number of talks at the library on centenary events, such as the Irish on the Titanic, the Christmas Truce at the beginning of the Great War, and the influenza pandemic of 1918 at the war’s end. Last fall, I joined the library’s writers group and have received helpful criticism as I resume an earlier career writing creative essays. More value.

Two particular moments of library value come to mind. One summer about five years ago, I attended a free concert (all on-site library events are free) in the library’s parking lot given by John Sebastian, a Woodstock presenter 50 years ago this summer and an inductee in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Ah, what a night for a daydream!

The second came after I returned to LBI following Superstorm Sandy. The library, which was able to return to “normal” fairly soon after people were allowed on the Island, was a lifeline for hundreds struggling to deal with enormous loss. From things as simple as a clean restroom to wash hands and outlets to recharge the battery on a cell phone to more-complex needs, such as information on commercial services and government programs, Linda Feaster, then-branch manager, and her staff were ... what’s the word ... invaluable.

You couldn’t put a price on it.

Jim Curley is a resident of Ship Bottom and a board member of the Friends of the Island Library.

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