Austerity Measurement: Tough Times For (Presidential) Libraries

How the proud library has fallen. A repository of information since antiquity, it grows more outdated by the hour, no matter how much microfiche it may store or how willing it is to lend out DVDs—the “new thing.” Storing the whole of media-based human knowledge is no longer their exclusive domain.

Ask any teenager their preferred method of finding information—be it academic, referential, recreational in print, audio, or video formats—and they’ll respond, “the Internet.” Or maybe they’ll just mutter, “online, jeez,” while not making eye contact with you as they have a separate conversation using their thumbs.

Any reference point, book, film, fact, curio, et. al. is most quickly accessed via magical pieces of plastic we buy seasonally. Not a news flash.

What is news is that as a result of ye old downturn, public libraries are experiencing dramatic cuts in funding, resulting in closures, laid-off employees, and literally hundreds of card-carrying members with nowhere to return their books on cassette tape.

Many branches of the New York City public library system are now closed one day per week. Jersey City’s public library system is looking at a 17.5 percent cut in state aid and a $1.7 million reduction in municipal aid this coming budget year. Stamford, CT, was considering having all of its library branches open just one day a week before a tentative deal was struck. Camden’s library system was about to close before it was announced it would join the county system. County library systems across the country are being forced to close branches, layoff part-time and full-time employees, suspend raises, reduce hours, close one day a week, etc.

Ironically, libraries are experiencing a lot of use from people coming in to look for jobs on computers, in the hopes that once the users have a job, they won’t have to go to the library to look up things. And once more people have jobs and tax revenues rise, the library will get better funding.

But the real tragedy is that building a presidential library in “these tough economic times” is inconvenient, behind schedule, and borderline difficult.

Yes, the George W. Bush Presidential Library (part of the George W. Bush Presidential Center) is still not completed. In fact, construction hasn’t started, and it’s been almost two years.

By contrast, construction started on Bill Clinton’s “Check It Out, I Was President” supercenter not 11 months after he left office in 2001. Ronald Reagan’s library started construction before his farewell address! Now that’s the Grand Old Party!

And yet, W.’s architectural representation of executive accomplishment hasn’t even had a foundation poured. A groundbreaking ceremony occurred back in July, but I guess they’re still waiting on the Caterpillars. And perhaps some more funds via donors solicited via Google ad campaigns.

Granted, a presidential library is expensive. Clinton’s cost $165 million, and in the interest of inflation and one-upmanship, Bush’s has to cost over $200 million. Hard to raise that kind of money in a financial meltdown. Approval ratings with precipitous falls toward the end of 43’s term probably haven’t helped ushering in donations, either.

But never fail, there is a media blitz on the horizon. Assuming construction starts in November, which is the estimate given by the Bush official presidential library website, it will neatly coincide with the release of his autobiography, Decision Points.

Brave title for a guy who rarely made decisions or points. Zing!

The money will flow in sooner or later, and the library won’t be out of reach for voracious bookworm George W., who was so wrapped up in a classroom book-reading that he delayed reacting to the 9/11 attacks. Presidential libraries are tourist attractions, so they create jobs, get tax breaks, are donated to the government, and promote a distinctly American patriotism. It’s just got to be built. Like a new Giants Stadium. Or Yankee Stadium. Or Citi Field. No one knows why, but we do it.

Imagine if every European king or dictator had his own library, museum, and on-site public policy thinktank? There would barely be room for roads! And plenty of rulers, well, they’re just not worth remembering. And we’re missing most of their stuff. No one would go to the Aethrelred The Unready Kingly Library or the Louis XI The Spider King Monarchial Center.

“Here was his sword. You’ll notice it’s rather unremarkable, consistent with all other swords of its time, except for this one little notch that indicates it’s for the king. Interesting, no?”

Not a library’s worth of information.

Instead, imagine every conceivable photo of George W. Bush looking confused, constipated or bored, every official war document he doodled on and every crib note on a visiting foreign dignitary, all in one place! And for those who “seek freedom,” the Freedom Of Information Act requests about his presidential term can come flying in to his presidential library in January 2014!

Now imagine all the redactions! Kind of looks like the Internet, doesn’t it?