The Charlotte News

SUNDAY, JUNE 25, 1939


Half A Cent For Books


Site ed. note: In a rare editorial comment on local affairs, Cash takes on the issue of why and for how much the public library in Charlotte should and could be maintained lest its doors close at the end of the fiscal year 1939, five days hence from this article's publication date.

Cash would have no doubt marvelled at the new incarnation of the Charlotte Public Library extant in the 1990's, voted best in the country a few years back, and for good reason. Its multimedia and computer resources are rivaled only by those of the very largest cities. It even has the entire BBC Shakespeare series on videotape--every play the Bard ever wrote for the viewing, something not found in most libraries these days, (though in many you may find a video of Star Wars XVIII (The Saga Begins) or Billy Jack 32 (Where Billy Gets Really Silly) or Bambi (the original), and in plentiful supply right beside the two new best-sellers in fiction, How to Write a Best-Seller and I'm Alright, But Are You?) In Charlotte, you will also find both of Cash's biographies and The News articles contained herein in their original format together with all the other news of the day fit to print, preserved on microfilm. And the staff is always courteous and helpful.

So if you pass through Charlotte, give it a visit. And when you are done visiting, you can walk about four blocks north until you reach the large gothic Methodist church, turn a block west to North Church Street, look to your right on the far side of the street and there see the Frederick, marked with a little plaque to Cash at its front door, from whence most of the hard toil on these many articles for The News, (at least, those not written at the no longer extant offices of The News, three blocks south of the Frederick), and the last half or so of The Mind of the South was dutifully impressed to paper on Cash's old Underwood. And standing there before this place, you might pause a moment and contemplate the conditions under which it was all done--or for that matter the conditions under which any writer in the South wrote in those days, not only by "the nubs of pencils", as was the habit of a standing-by-the-refrigerator Thomas Wolfe, or on rickety, heavy manual typewriters by "erratic typing skills", as was Cash's usual method, but in the heat of humid summer with only the incessant ticking of small electric fans to keep the brow cool, and by the lights of primary research tools ordered from far away places or grasped to hand only by hitch-hiking to the closest university libraries three hours away on roads that often scarcely had tar on them. But, one supposes, that world also gave one so inclined more time during which just to contemplate. And Cash used that time, adequate available library or no, to the best advantage imaginable.


YOU HAVE probably heard it said and perhaps believed that the proposed levy for the public library which will be voted on Tuesday, means a flat increase in the rate of 5 cents--a flat extra outlay of that much for each taxpayer over what he has paid in the past. But that isn't true by a good deal.

What it actually will mean, to begin with at least is an outlay of about half a cent more per hundred dollars. The proposed enactment doesn't make a levy of full 5 cents mandatory at all. It simply authorizes the County Commissioners to levy up to the limit, as they see fit. The levy can be anything between nothing and 5 cents--half a cent, 1 cent, 2, 3, 4, or 5 cents. And, in fact, it may be said here that the levy which will actually be paid to begin with will be just three cents. Some of the commissioners have already expressed themselves to that effect in private. But could it be raised to the full 5 cents the next year? Or any time thereafter? Certainly. But not necessarily.

It has to be remembered that this is no new enterprise--that Charlotte and the County has been supporting a public library ever since 1901. The systems or some of them, started playing with the idea, indeed, so long ago as 1817. That year the Center Library Society was set up in the town. And in 1823 the Legislature incorporated the New Providence Library Association for Mecklenburg County, which was to be devoted to "general reading and culture."


But nothing much ever came out until the late Andrew Carnegie began to give away his millions, to found libraries among other things. Or rather, to erect buildings in which to house libraries, for it was never any part of his policy to contribute anything to the buying of books or to maintenance. In 1901 he offered Charlotte, first $20,000, and then $25,000 for the erection of the building if the citizens would vote $2,500 a year for five years to support it. They did--by a vote of 770 for to 245 against. The curious smallness of that vote is explained by the fact that no special election was called, and that instead a special ballot was simply voted at the general election. It appears now that was quite illegal. But in those innocent days nobody minded, the library was built, and launched blithely--more or less blithely, anyhow--on its career.

However, it had been incorporated as a private institution, instead of as a part of the municipal corporation, as is the usual practice. And there was always some question about its adequate support. Bills were enacted in the Legislature in 1914 and 1917 to authorize a special election on a levy of 2 cents, with a maximum of 9 cents. But nobody ever bothered to order the first one, and the second got advertised wrongly and never came off, either. Meantime, the City and County Governments had been contributing enough to keep it going. And in the 1920's these contributions rose to a maximum of $46,000 annually--divided equally between the City and County. At that time, the library also drew $20,000 a year from the Rosenwald Foundation, on condition of the attainment of the $46,000 by the City and County.


With the coming of the depression, however, that ended abruptly. In 1930, the appropriation by the City and County was cut to $10,000, and the Rosenwald donation was lost. Since then the contributions of the City and the County have slowly increased in the last several years, at the rate of about $5,000 annually. For the fiscal year 1938-39 the appropriation was $27, 500--of which the city paid $17,500 and the County, $10,000.

With that before us, we are ready now to consider that matter of the half cent. A tax of three cents on the $100 valuation will yield about $33,120 or $5,620 more than the $27,500 contributed by the City and County for the current fiscal year. Place that $27,500 against the $33,120 and it is manifest that it represents, roughly, a tax levy of just slightly more than 2 cents on the hundred dollars' evaluation. The real difference involved in the new levy, if it is set at three cents, will, therefore, be just that $5,620 or slightly less than half a cent on the $100 valuation. The 2 cents you have been paying already has simply been disguised in the general fund, and you haven't been acutely aware of it.


But isn't there some other way to handle the matter? There isn't. The new City Charter expressly provides that the City authorities cannot appropriate for the library without a vote of the people. And if the levy fails, the single recourse left will be the County Commissioners. And, of course, with the vote unfavorable, they would feel like assuming the whole burden--would feel like it, anyhow, on the ground that the proposition would be grossly unfair. If the levy fails, then, the library will close its doors around June 30. And the city and county will be entirely without public library facilities.

Is it worthwhile to maintain the library--at the cost of three cents on the $100 valuation? At the cost of half a cent more than you have been paying all along? Well, are books worthwhile? Is it worthwhile to have a literate population? A public library properly run is a necessity second only to the schools, it seems to me. And if Charlotte votes to discontinue it, it will be, so far as I know, the first town of one hundred thousand people or anything like that population in the whole United States ever to turn in such a verdict. Hardly a desirable distinction for town that has already had its share of laughter.

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