Throughout history, government has recognized several important classes of individuals who need help. As American citizens, we approve of a portion of our tax dollars going to help the truly needy. Currently, these groups can be broken up into the following categories:

1. The Poor;
2. The Disabled;
3. The Elderly;
4. People who haven’t seen “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.”

Yes, your tax dollars are going to help those poor souls who are dangerously under-entertained, by subsidizing your neighborhood Free Blockbuster, commonly known as the public library.

Public libraries were formed due to a recognition that in order to have an educated populace, the public should have access to literature. Rather than people with low incomes having to go purchase books, they could have free access to them at the library. This ensures a baseline of access to literature for those of modest means, and provides valuable research opportunities for individuals who may not want to buy all their source material.

According to author William James Sidis, the public library as we know it originated in Boston in 1836. In 1731, Benjamin Franklin founded the Library Company of Philadelphia, which allowed members to buy a subscription, and the pooled money went to buy books (the company actually still exists). Rumor has it that Ben Franklin’s first checkout was “Knocked Up.”

Recently, public libraries have begun to change their missions altogether. Libraries are now equipped with full multimedia capabilities, and serve less as educational opportunities and more as neighborhood entertainment centers. Library patrons have expanded from those who need no-cost materials to free-riding wealthy people looking for some free entertainment. Get a library card and now you have full access to a wide variety of music CDs, DVD movies, video games, and internet access, all for free, and all at taxpayer expense.

In fact, video stores around Wisconsin are shutting down now because they can’t compete with internet-based companies like Netflix, which charges one monthly fee and mails DVDs to the customer. But public libraries actually had this system in place well before Netflix ever appeared. For years, library patrons have been able to go online, request virtually any DVD or music CD they want, and have it delivered to their local library for pickup. In this respect, local libraries had Netflix’ technology beat by years. And for free, to boot.

In the 2008 Milwaukee City budget, Mayor Tom Barrett began to recognize the absurdity of public libraries serving as clearinghouses for free DVDs and CDs. His budget eliminated the ability of library patrons to put digital media on hold, thereby making it more difficult to freeload off the taxpayers.

According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, public libraries cost us $220 million per year. Of those funds, 81.5% are provided by local governments through property tax revenues. 6.5%, or $14.2 million, of the total system budget is provided by the state, and the remaining 10% is provided by gifts, endowments and the late fees I paid for “27 Dresses.”

When we look at the broader scope of government, do we really need to consider free entertainment as a basic public service? Wouldn’t the public be better served by people who can afford it going to a video store and paying for their DVDs? Wouldn’t that create jobs and economic activity? Are there homeless people without health care laying on the street, curled up in blankets, clutching a DVD copy of “Meet the Fockers?” Is this really a public funding priority? Has anybody ever answered a citizen survey listing being able to rent “Superbad” for free as a top 10 government priority?

Library apologists would point out that much of written literature is popular entertainment and that it would be impossible to draw a line between what is valuable and what is not. If those people can’t tell the difference between adultery in “The Scarlet Letter” and a character humping hot pastry in the movie “American Pie,” then they have been standing too near the book de-magnitizers for too long. If the DVD you are checking out makes Rob Lowe’s home video collection look like “Touched by an Angel,” it probably doesn’t deserve a place in a public library.

With local and state governments facing significant budget challenges, it might be time to take a closer look at the non-essential services they are providing. Nobody is facing imminent death because they haven’t seen season one of “Who’s the Boss?” on DVD. Yet local libraries might be soaking the taxpayers to make watching Alyssa Milano’s pre-teen years a reality.

-May 5, 2008