Thursday, February 11, 2010

On the Taxpayer's Dime?

A common complaint about unrestrained internet access is the claim that taxpayer's are somehow footing the bill for some library patrons to view pornography. This point is often raised by censorship proponents, but not by them alone. Some more neutral commentators take this position as well, often claiming to be injecting a note of practicality into the debate. They feel that by steering the discussion away from anti-pornography alarmism to a discussion of costs and who pays, they're rising above the fray. Unfortunately, they just haven't thought things through very well.

Is the taxpayer subsidizing the use of online porn at the public library? The simple answer is "no."

In an artificial sense, it is possible to come up with a dollar figure. Assuming one could accurately distinguish pornography from what is not pornography -- a difficult assumption at best -- one might be able to determine what percentage of the data (measured in megabytes) that a library received over the internet included pieces of pornographic images. That percentage could be applied to the total burdened cost of internet services to the library for the same time period, and the result would be a dollar amount. That rather theoretical dollar amount would represent the taxpayers' contribution to accessing pornography at the library.

The problem with this view is that it doesn't reflect how a library actually pays for internet service. A library's internet connection is not like cable television at home, where a subscriber might pay one fee for basic cable and an additional fee for "adult" channels, or even a pay-per-view fee for specific programs. Most libraries pay a single fee that provides access to the entire internet, without any divisions or subdivisions of the service. It's either on or it's off, all or nothing. Most libraries pay a flat rate, or a flat rate within a very large range of data traffic, with the result that the internet connection costs the library the same, whether it is used to download research data, is used to download pornography, or goes unused altogether. It doesn't make sense, given that kind of cost structure, to claim that the taxpayer is subsidizing anyone's use of pornography, even if some patrons are viewing such materials. What the taxpayer is buying is the internet connection, end of story.

Those who raise this poorly thought out cost analysis often take the argument a step further, to bring in the issue of selection. They try to draw an analogy between internet filters and the process by which a library selects which books to acquire. The argument is that since a library doesn't have every book, it need not provide access to every website, and that this comparison somehow makes economic sense. This is a very poor analogy indeed.

Libraries have to be selective about traditional holdings like books and recordings because those items have very direct costs. Every library acquisition is an expense, not only in terms of the purchase prices of the acquired materials but also in terms of the labor hours and other burdened expenses that go into the process of selection, acquisition, cataloging, and shelving. On an ongoing basis, every inch of library shelf space is a limited commodity that represents monthly expenses in terms of building, heat, light, maintenance, labor hours, and more. Books consume ongoing labor hours by being checked out, checked in, shelved, and inventoried.

Internet access in a library is not free, but many of the kinds of costs mentioned above just don't apply. One cost that specifically doesn't apply is that of selection, since no library staff are selecting the materials that are available. Another is shelf space. A computer takes up room to be sure, but usually work space, not shelf space. Even if the computer is using up space that could otherwise shelve books, the vast collection of materials that is available online makes the per-unit cost in terms of space a virtual zero. There is no process of checking in, checking out, or inventory verification, so those costs are reduced to zero for internet items. That brings us to what is probably the most important difference, which is the huge Return On Investment that comes from the library's expenditures on internet access. For a flat monthly fee the library can deliver access to innumerable books, news sources, academic articles, research databases, and other materials. Since the cost of internet access is divided out over so vast a number of accessible items, the cost of any one book, article, or anything else on the web is vanishingly small. In fact, viewed in terms of simple cost analysis, any library would want unfettered internet access, because the more materials that are accessible, the higher the Return On Investment. Restricting access can only lower that ROI.

On the other hand, the costs of internet filters do not rely on fuzzy accounting or poor analogies. Internet filters have direct and tangible costs. A library has to purchase the filtering software, will pay some technician to install it, and, depending how that software is configured, may need to purchase additional equipment. The library will pay a subscription fee for regular updates to the internet black lists and white lists that are critical to the filter's functioning. Library staff will be taking some of their labor hours to manage the filter, unblocking sites or disabling filters, or overriding black list and white list settings as needed. If the filters are installed in compliance with the Children's Internet Protection Act, staff time and other resources will also be devoted to filing the certification paperwork. In an accounting sense, there is no tangible return from the money expended on internet filters: it is pure expense.

None of this is to argue that libraries should never filter any internet content for any patrons. That is a separate line of reasoning having little to do with financials. But those who try to bring a cost analysis into the argument have just not stopped to think about the structure and true sources of the costs a library must bear. Viewed strictly as an accounting problem, libraries should seek to get the most out of their internet fees by making available to patrons as much internet content as possible, and should seek to reduce the costs associated with internet filters, an expense category that produces no measurable returns.

No comments:

Post a Comment