Soundings: You could look it up

Soundings: You could look it up

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Back in December of last year, a lively online discussion was sparked when this newspaper reported that Edgartown voters would be asked, at our 2010 annual town meeting, to borrow $4 million to build a new public library. One writer asked, “How much will our taxes be increased to repay the $4 mil?”

At the Edgartown Library, where I’ve been reference librarian since the summer of 2006, looking up answers to this sort of question is part of my job. In this case I’d already done my homework, so I posted the answer: In the first years, a $4 million bond issue would boost Edgartown taxes by almost $300,000 — about 1 percent of the town’s operating budget.

If you’re a reader of comments at this (or any other) paper’s website, you already know that wading into any online discussion, especially if you append your actual name rather than some made-up moniker, is not for the thin of skin. The author of the next comment dismissed my post as being unworthy of the pixels it occupied on the screen: “Nis you indeed are biased and can not seperate [sic] yourself out of this. . . . On many levels this is a waste of tax payers money.”

I found this disheartening, less because I disagreed with the expressed opinion than because I believe that, in our civic discourse, the distinction between opinion and fact is vitally important.

In my online post, I had shared the results of my research, which had included conversations with our town treasurer, visits to the state Department of Revenue website and a quick check on municipal borrowing rates. Had my facts been challenged — had some mistake in my math been pointed out — I would not have felt so disheartened. But when a statement of fact can be rejected as biased, how is healthy discussion even possible? How can we set a body of agreed-upon information on the table and proceed to a conversation about what we should do?

Just as an exercise, here are a few statements of fact and opinion about the recent history and current status of what I must say, in the spirit of full disclosure, is my very favorite place in town: the Edgartown Free Public Library.

Fact: In 1975, when the library was last expanded to 6,800 square feet, Edgartown’s winter population was about 1,400 people.

Fact: In 1986, barely a decade after the dust from that project had settled, the Edgartown capital programs committee identified another expansion of the library as a priority for the town and placed it on a schedule for completion in 1992. Edgartown’s population in 1986: about 2,700 people.

Fact: In 1988, recognizing the need for more land if the library were to expand at its current site, Edgartown instructed its town counsel to secure rights of first refusal on abutting properties. (Edgartown voters, in 2004, approved the $3.5 million purchase of an adjoining property for library expansion. The vote was 438 to 172.)

Fact: In its 1991 report to the town, the Edgartown capital programs committee pushed the date for completion of the new library back to 1997. The committee referred to the library project in the Edgartown annual report of 1994, but without a completion date, and thereafter never mentioned the library again. Edgartown’s year-round population in 1994: about 3,400.

Fact: Edgartown’s year-round population now stands at about 4,100 people, nearly triple the number that our 1975 library was designed to serve. Since 1986, when the need for a larger facility was first officially identified, a generation of Edgartown children has been conceived, born, educated, and matured to the age of voting and fighting our nation’s wars, all without a shovel touching dirt for construction of a new library building.

Fact: If you think the age of electronic media rings the death-knell for public libraries, think again. A survey released this summer by the Online Computer Library Center concludes that Americans borrow more DVDs from their libraries than from Netflix or Blockbuster —more than 2.1 million of them each day. New media simply represent new resources for you to check out, for free. Electronic books? Downloadable audiobooks? Online language lessons? At the library, we say bring ‘em on.

Opinion: If you dropped an astute stranger into Edgartown from far away — say, Milwaukee or Mars —and gave them some time to look around, they’d soon be asking: What’s the deal with your library? Here’s a town that brims with civic pride and takes excellent care of its streets, its parks, and its municipal facilities. The library is the one building that breaks the pattern. There has to be a political back-story here — what is it?

Opinion and fact, mixed together: Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research organization, found in a recent survey that 71 percent of Americans say their public libraries use taxpayer dollars well. Just try finding another agency of government that’s this well-trusted, or this well-loved. Public libraries are one of America’s greatest inventions. If we didn’t have libraries — havens for lifelong learning, sanctuaries for study, centers for programs in civic literacy, repositories of all sorts of delightful free resources for everyone to share — surely we would dream of them.

Postscript: The $4 million bond issue for the Edgartown Library, mentioned at the top of this piece, was dropped from the 2010 annual meeting warrant. Now a building design committee, appointed by the selectmen, is developing a new library plan to present to the town. The committee holds lively meetings most Monday mornings, and the public is invited to attend. That’s a fact.