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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Tragedy of the Library

So, the water was shut off at work yesterday for about four hours. Those hours weren't so bad for me because I didn't have to "go," but I know what it must have been like for those who did. This got me to thinking about something I've been fleshing out for a while now. I'm not going to explain the thought process that connects this to the water being out, because I'm not sure I can. To name it, the thought I thought was of how the public library is the perfect example of the modern day Tragedy of the Commons.
For those of you who cannot follow links very well, the Tragedy of the Commons, in a nutshell, is the fate in store for property and resources shared equally by all citizens. In Europe, sometime well before anyone who bathed regularly lived there, cities and towns had grazing land set aside for use by everyone. Because anyone could use it, and everyone shared the burden of price but not the rewards of the sale, those to whom it was most profitable grazed cattle with abandon. In other words, they didn't pay for it so they didn't care. Today, it is not the grass that is being treated with disrespect, instead it is information.
Sure, everyone pays for the library. I'm going to ballpark a figure of a couple of dollars a year for this cost, and that's a pretty generous guess. For this paltry sum, everyone has access to free movies, books, music, databases, internet access, air conditioning, heat, restrooms (there, that's how it's connected!!!), chairs, newspapers, help, and someone to talk to (not to mention in-house entertainment, education, default babysitting, and historical preservation). However, since the cost is so low in exchange for the return, those who need it most use it most, and no one values it.
To combat this, libraries generated fines and fees to minimize and punish abuse. The current trend in libraries, however, is to do away with those mean ol' fines (which, honestly, weren't that effective anyway). With every fine amnesty day, the library damns itself to the muddy ruins of the commons. My previous blog about DVDs illustrates this point clearly. Why should someone be careful when handling something if it's owned by the library? Regardless of what you're thinking right now about how you don't think that way (and I know you are), others DO, consciously or not. This, not to be too redundant, is actually what ensures the tragedy of the commons.
This is also why libraries draw the freaks and outcasts of society (plus the homeless), but that's another blog.

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