Pr(Future Dave Bacons|Library Cuts) is Small

I grew up in the small town of Yreka, CA (“Yreka Bakery” backwards is…) that sits just minutes south of the Oregon-California border on Interstate 5. Yreka, population a little over 7000 brave souls, is the county seat of Siskiyou county. Siskiyou county is “god’s country” meaning, yes, (a) it votes strongly Republican 🙂 and (b) its scenery is awesome:
Siskiyou county is, however, not a wealthy part of the United States (yes, if you measure wealth in dollars :)) Unemployment in the county is currently 19 percent (not seasonally adjusted), the median income is $29,530, and about 18 percent of the population is below the poverty line. Most employment is in the services or retail trade, with government and agriculture/mining/timber being the next highest employers. The collapse of the timber industry during the 70s and 80s took a hard toll on the county and no industry has really arisen to take its place.
As you might imagine, given the above facts, the recent recession has cause some financial hardships for Siskiyou county. It comes as no surprise, then to read an article in the local newspaper, the Siskiyou Daily News, regarding drastic cuts in the funding of the Siskyou County library. The county is running a $3.7 million deficit, and many cuts are now on the county supervisor’s agenda. Among the cuts is one that hits dear to my heart, cutting the county library’s budget from $712,000 to $50,000, the later being enough to keep the utilities running at the library buildings. The county library in Siskiyou county is in danger of dying.
Read about this made me sad. Now I’m not a bystander without personal interest in this situation: my handicapped sister has worked or volunteered at the county library in Yreka for many many years. The “gainful” employment the library has given her has been a blessing for her and, I think, for those who get to spend time with someone who is much more wonderful than her oafish brother. It would be a shame if her job where to end, not because she costs the county much (she is a volunteer now) but because it brings great joy to her day, and I suspect, to many people who interact with her.
But I’m also sad for a different reason. I’m sad because of Spacetime Physics 1ST Edition. 1st edition, peoples, not the later editions! I picked up this book from the county library at who knows what age and learned all about special relativity (chapter 1 is available here: note the dog and spaceship.) Indeed learning about hyperbolic sine and hyperbolic cosine were of great use when I finally, years later, had to learn trigonometry (which I taught myself in order to calculate how the size of the moon’s shadow is changed by refraction in the earth’s atmosphere. NERD!)
I’m sad because of a county library Calculus book whose author I do not remember, but where I first learned about Newton’s (and friend’s) great discovery involving wacko ideas like limits and infinitesimals. It will come as no surprise to learn that I was led to this book by a book on quantum theory. The quantum theory book started out with a discussion of something called blackbody radiation, and it was very important that the big sigma (I new this stood for a sum) was used instead of a big flat “S.” A science teacher said “Ah that’s an integral sign from Calculus.” Ah the indignation of having to learn calculus before you could learn quantum theory (now we know better!)
I’m sad because of all of the back issues of Scientific American with their wonderful articles on the game of life, computer bugs that evolved, and tinkertoy machines for playing tic-tac-toe (and whose author, in later life, seems to have become rather sadly confused.)
I’m sad for all of the many popular science books on the “mysteries” of quantum theory that allowed me, when it came time to really learn quantum theory, to know exactly where the line to those mysteries lay and that crossing that line tonight at 2 a.m. was not going to help me solve my problem set by 10 a.m. I’m sad for A Brief History of Time, From the Big Bang to Black Holes where I learned that I disagreed with Hawking about many things, none of them involving physics.
Now I can’t say that I’ve been any great contribution to my country, given how big of a user of its library I once was. I live in Seattle and visit Yreka only occasionally now. But I do know with high certainty that a major factor in me ending up with a Ph.D. in theoretical physics and performing research on quantum computing can be traced back to that county library. And I’m guessing that for many others the library has provided a path towards their own self-education: may it be on black holes, sewing, or learning about the history of the world. If I had a soapbox I’d probably also go on about studies showing businesses not moving to the county due to it’s low literacy rate. But enough of the political whining. Tonight, I’m just going to be sad for the future kids who don’t even know that they just lost one more opportunity to expand and better their future world.

25 Replies to “Pr(Future Dave Bacons|Library Cuts) is Small”

  1. Dave: Has your university library cut back on its hardcopy journal subscriptions — because the publication(s) are available online? If not, why not?
    Except as a museum for rare books, I suspect that the traditional library model will cease to exist within 20 years, and perhaps much sooner. I’m not arguing that this is a good thing — but it’s the reality. It’s awfully expensive and inefficient to heat/cool and file/store/retrieve the same book in thousands of libraries across the country.
    (It’s slightly amusing that a cutting edge technologist such as yourself laments the library’s demise. But rest assured that I have some spare vacuum tubes in my basement — if you need any.)

  2. At least the web provides some replacement. Imagine if this closing had happend in the 1970s with no alternative available.

  3. @rocky:
    Has your university library cut back on its hardcopy journal subscriptions — because the publication(s) are available online? If not, why not?
    Yes they have. They’ve also cut back on online subscriptions. Luckily for me, in quantum computing a very high percentage of papers are on the arXiv.
    Certainly I agree with you that the library model is going to change (and hopefully the journal model will change as well, but that’s another story.) Universities will probably be among the first place where this change occurs, because they are already used to the model of electronic distribution used by online journals.
    But for a rural poor area like my hometown, it’s going to be a very painful transition. For example, current models of online books used by Amazon and others don’t really fit into a library model. As an optimist, and someone who believes in technology as an agent for good, I think there will be a way through this, but in the meantime a lot of people are going to have a lot less access to books.
    As mentioned by others the internet does provide a good source of knowledge but for my small town the library is the public internet access point. And right now the internet does not provide a good source of free “literature.”
    Ack, gotta run late for bus!

  4. @kim: I’m happy to hear you will be endowing the Siskiyou County Library 🙂 I’m sure they will be happy to name it after you or any other fear-less-leader of your choosing!
    Of course, at the lowest level, the lack of funding for the library is a problem in economics. The lack of a sustainable economy in the county due to a variety of factors (remoteness, meth, crime, economic hysteresis, etc.) is the fundamental problem. The county budget, for example, spends roughly 43 percent of its budget on law enforcement and about 10 percent on roads. Another 17 percent goes to public assistance. Choices must be made and jobs and government services and jobs will be cut.
    What is sad, however, is that, in this county, they are spending 50 times as much on law enforcement as they are on supporting institutions like the library. This, to me, is a symptom of a deeper malaise, one that does not value education or learning (Having lived 18 years there, I can attest to this. But “oh”, you say, “you were a nerd, so probably teased to death and bitter about this!” Actually to tell you the truth I loved my childhood, enjoyed my friends, and if anything probably gave more teasing than was given. Sorry Tim.) Now I’m not one to argue that learning and education are ultimate goals to be sacrificed at the account of all others (I only PLAY a professor on college campuses, and I’m not too good at this act anyway), but a basic fundamental respect for learning is, I think, at the heart of a viable economy, a viable democracy, and a free society.
    But, “Aha!”, you say “that would mean you would have to cut law enforcement.” And I say yes, you would. And your crime rate is going to go up. Because just as the budget cuts to the library are a symptom of deeper economic problems, the crime problem is a function of a deep economic and societal problem. Because the economy sucks, people turn to crime. Increasing law enforcement makes you safer, at the expense of an ever increasing populace behind bars and more and more money spent keeping you safer.
    In Siskiyou county the only economically viable model is for the population to shrink dramatically, for outside companies to set-up shop, or for Lithium deposits to be discovered in the county (heh.) Sadly I think learning and education are more likely to lead to these than any increase in law enforcement.

  5. Indeed these are tough questions, and I’m far from having good answers. Personally I actually think the U.S., when I compare it to other countries around the world, does things fairly well and I’m am personally happy that I get to live here and not elsewhere. For example, when I look at countries that spend less of their GDP on their government, for example, I see a lot of countries I wouldn’t want to live in because they are corrupt and lawless (or are dictatorships funded by oil profits.) When I look at countries that spend more of their GDP on their government, I see places I wouldn’t want to live in because of stifled innovation and freedoms (and are often corrupt!) A flawed but interesting list of this ordering is . On the far ends of both of these spectra are places that are their own pieces of hell on earth. I suppose this makes me an aberration for today’s political climate in that I don’t see either side of the two points of view as making compelling cases. Actually that’s not quite true. At a federal level, I actually support a smaller government in that I think spending nearly of third of our budget on the military is a good way to end up as a new chapter in The Collapse of Complex Societies .
    “If the county inverted spending police/education, are you sure kids growing up there would be better off.”
    Of course I’m not advocating an inversion, only a balancing. Certainly an inversion would lead to Siskiyou county chaos! Well maybe they would start to make inroads against the recent loss of their meth jobs to Mexico (bumper sticker that used to be relevant: “Buy American, Do Meth!”) But do I value police 50 times education? No. If I were a better man I’d look up and try to estimate the trade-offs in crime-rate vs. spending on sheriffs, and crime-rates vs. library funding 🙂
    “And even if it did, what % of future prof. Bacons would emigrate to big universities/big cities/big salaries, as opposed to coming home and teaching high school?”
    Good question. I don’t know but I can tell you that the number of friends in my class who returned home to teach is one and the number who went on to big city jobs is much higher (I will brag tell the cows come home about my friends who are now a diplomat, multiple computer programmers, a venture capital dude, and a West point education officer in the army (a guy who I can DEFINITELY say would not have ended up where he did without the library….he read voraciously.))

  6. Lyle: The problem with your argument is that for many people–and the fraction is likely to be higher than average in a poor rural place like Siskiyou County–the public library *is* the internet access point. For those people there is no practical difference between the 1970s and now in the impact of the library closing.

  7. One of the highlights of my week as a kid was visiting the library, being able to choose WHATEVER I WANTED to read, without having to persuade my parents to buy it.
    It’s not about what you can directly trace to learning from the library; it’s about finding out about the world on your own terms, that finding out that reading is fun and learning is exciting, and there is soooooo much more than what they teach you in school.

  8. One good thing about capitalist society is that the wealthy are not prevented from endowing a library (or forced to endow then name it Fearlessleader Library).
    Another good thing is the ability to capitalize on discoveries and intellectual property, making endowments possible.

  9. Dave as you know these are some of the root questions about the role of government, the answers to which my poorly-endowed cranial cavity finds wanting.
    If the county inverted spending police/education, are you sure kids growing up there would be better off – in terms of safety, drug use, and the equilibrium between immediate gratification of crime vs delayed learning? And even if it did, what % of future prof. Bacons would emigrate to big universities/big cities/big salaries, as opposed to coming home and teaching high school?
    I have been to Russia a few times, and witnessing the after-effects of control via central-committees (admittedly even more corrupt than ours) tempered my view of communal efforts for the greater good. In the unlikely case one day I become endowed, I would finance internships for American students in Russia. Methinks they would come home and work even harder, for themselves, and therefore for all of us.

  10. Thanks for blogging this. As you point out, it’s about a lot more than books. Libraries provide access to e-government services, help finding jobs, and help for small business owners. It’s precisely during these times that the public library is so important. I’m sure with that cut, they’re also laying off the professional librarian, and that’s a shame. I think the schools will notice the difference as will all the members of the local community.

  11. Eric, if they can’t access the internet at the library, they can just do so on their iPhones. Okay, I know, I know, some of them are probably too poor to afford iPhones, but a Droid should suffice as well.

  12. Kaus: The problem with accessing the internet via any kind of cell phone is that the terrain is mountainous (look at the photo that accompanies the post, or look at a road map of the area and note that there is a Siskiyou Pass a few miles the other side of the Oregon border and Siskiyou Mountains all over the vicinity). Cell phone coverage is line-of-sight, so there will be many places in the county from which you can’t get a signal. (I hear anecdotally that people have trouble getting net access via iPhone in downtown San Francisco due to buildings blocking signals from AT&T cell towers.) Presumably I-5 is reasonably well covered (interstate highways generally are), but I would not assume the availability of any kind of wireless service more than a mile from the freeway.

  13. Great post. Tough issues.
    I too grew up in a small rural community, and the library-related problems you describe are embedded in constellation of equally tough problems: the slow economic collapse of family-owned farms and family-owned small businesses; an accompanying loss of family-supporting blue-collar jobs; and (very sad to say) a *huge* increase in rural methamphetamine abuse.
    Is it obvious, though, that rural communities are in better shape than today’s academic communities?
    How many grad students recognized their own institution in the recent Onion story “Adderall Receives Honorary Degree From Harvard”?
    How many of the following goals are realistic for a young person, purely an economic and statistical point of view? “I want to be a family farmer” … “I want to be an R01 medical researcher” … “I want to be a quantum information scientist” … “I want to be a professional basketball player”?
    Most young people (but not all) appreciate that the pigeonhole argument ensures that the NBA goal is unrealistic as a kid’s sole “Plan A” … there simply aren’t enough NBA jobs to go around … and so every NBA-aspiring kid needs a fallback “Plan B”.
    It’s less obvious—but equally true—that similar pigeonhole arguments apply to the other professions … in rural life and in modern academia.
    These pigeonhole arguments are why a planet with 10,000,000,000 people has to focus on the broad challenge creating 10,000,000,000 family-supporting jobs … with “jobs” broadly conceived … because the dystopian alternative is that billions of human beings will be simply warehoused … abandoned to lives without hope.
    These sobering global-scale realities are why I find it natural to conceive of “quantum systems engineering” as the natural enterprise-driven extension of “quantum information science and mathematics” … because together these quantum disciplines form a creative math-science-engineering continuum that (IMHO, and hopefully) has great promise of helping to meet (soon!) the challenge of job creation on a global scale.

  14. Neil B, is the world is short of money? Heck no … the world has piles of capital looking for solid investments.
    Is the world short of talented, hard-working people? Heck no … there are literally billions of talented, hard-working people on this planet.
    Is the world short of good ideas? Heck no … not with more than a million academic articles published each year! 🙂
    Hmmmm … so perhaps it’s the joining of people, ideas, and investment together that proceeds more slowly than the friends of our planet could wish?

  15. I guess this blows me away. My husband grew up in a town of 150 (smaller now). They didn’t have a library, but the closest large town (which looks to be about twice the size of Yreka) has three: one for the local college, one for the county, and one for the city. The city or county library ran a book-mobile out to all the surrounding rural towns that didn’t have libraries, and my husband began reading Asimov when he was 8 or 9. (By contrast, I grew up in a town of about 50,000, and I spent every other summer day at the city library with occasional forays to the state library.)
    Even with the advent of the internet, most of the small towns in ND would not give up their libraries. Many people don’t have internet access. Some can’t afford computers, and those who can find the connections to the internet are more expensive than they can handle and flakey to boot. ND doesn’t have the option of iPhones (thanks AT&T). So the only place to get reliable internet access is the library. The same is true of several small towns in SD and MN. In many ways, the library literally is the only access to the world outside of your town.
    I realize the situation is based in economics, but I can’t help wondering if this some of this may be the result of somewhat screwed up priorities.

  16. Most of the money we’d otherwise have is either:
    being sucked up by the top few percent,
    being sucked up in political gamesmanship,
    being wasted,
    and I’m sure I left out plenty.

  17. Dave, even the Seattle Public Library has budget issues. Have you noticed that they all get closed two weeks out of the year? Before we Seattle residents were cut off, I had to get several books from the King County Library system because they were not in Seattle (the King County Library is a seperate property line item, Seattle’s is funded from the city’s operating budget).
    I don’t donate to the Seattle Library Foundation each year just to get early entrance to their book sales!
    I should mention that my mother made me love libraries. My favorite memories were of her taking me to the library, and both of us reading together on my parents’ big bed on Sunday afternoons. My daughter also loves reading, and has been on winning Global Reading Challenge Teams (The last time she was in the challenge the library picture cut off my kid’s head! I think it had something to do with the penguin hat she insisted on wearing. She now has done most of her high school volunteer hours at the library.)

  18. John, it’s true there is plenty of “real” capital, but because of how the money system works and flows, credit gets gummed up and things can’t get done. Look at “the great depression” – all of the same “things” were still around, but people were out of work, hungry, etc. I don’t think it’s a matter of sheer speed, but read e.g. to see how financialization took effort away from real industry. Also, even the physical capital is being degraded in some areas due to more difficult resource extraction, “externalities” like oil spills, war, etc. that cause intrinsic waste.

  19. Ack! I forgot something very important about the library!
    My daughter and one of her friends would check out Japanese anime movies from the library. They would watch them in Japanese with English subtitles. By the time they started to take the language in 7th grade, they were already familiar with the spoken language.
    My daughter has always considered Japanese to be “easy.” She will be taking AP Japanese next year.
    After visiting my brother last year in Europe (he does computer systems work for US State Department embassies, after a spending twenty years in the Army Signal Corps), she is thinking of going to school overseas and finding an international career (which I hope starts at the Jackson School of International Studies so we can pay in state tuition and she can live at home!).

  20. Neil, your post reminds me of Schiller’s maxim “Against stupidity, the Gods themselves contend in vain.” Soberingly, on those occasions when I undertake to “contend”, it generally becomes all-too-clear that my *own* stupidity is the primary obstruction … ouch.
    As a quantum confection, who has seen Aaron Fenyes’ recent (brief) essay “There’s no cloning in symplectic mechanics”? Fenyes’ essay points out a striking dynamical phenomenon (no-cloning), that is present in both classical and quantum mechanics, and originates in their shared foundations in symplectic geometry and Hamiltonian flow.

  21. I don’t donate to the Seattle Library Foundation each year just to get early entrance to their book sales!
    Mrs. Pontiff suggested after reading the comments on this post that those of us who benefited from the library as kids should be giving back at this moment.

  22. Though, getting into the book sale on Friday evening before the public opening on Saturday morning is pretty awesome! I got one volume of Richard Feynman’s physics lectures (and standing next to me in line was a guy who was in those lectures in the early 1960s).
    It is a madhouse, but I do know where the science, sewing, and math sections are located. My daughter goes to the manga section, and then we meet up later.

  23. Wow….reading about this really depresses me. And one of the things that’s so damned lousy about it is sh#t like this is happening all over the country. But meanwhile we’re shelling umpteens of billions of dollars on a meaningless war. There is definitely something very wrong there. I wish your sister the very best.

  24. William says: “Wow … reading about this really depresses me … sh#t like this is happening all over the country … there is definitely something very wrong there.” William, what you posted is a Great Truth … which means its opposite is a Great Truth … but IMHO its preferable for folks to seek *that* optimistic dual-truth for themselves (because there are so many of them).
    My own version of that dual-truth is posted over on Dick Lipton’s blog Gödel’s Lost Letter and P=NP … here are the concluding two paragraphs:
    “There is no need, therefore, for today’s mathematicians, scientists, and engineers to feel like Miniver Cheevy that they are ‘born too late’; to ‘love the days of old’; or to ‘curse the commonplace’.”
    “Our fate is the opposite of Miniver Cheevy’s; we are at the beginning of a 21st century that will see greater advances in our understanding of dynamical mathematics, science, and engineering, than any previous century has seen. And our increasingly crowded, increasingly hot, increasingly resource-short planet urgently needs those dynamical advances.”
    For me, it is an article of faith that the number of such Great Truths is unbounded. Moreover, Fathers’ Day is an especially good day to profess them!
    Best wishes, therefore, are jointly extended to the QIS blogosphere’s newest Bacon father and the planet’s youngest Bacon child … may you both enjoy a 21st century that is shaping-up to be the … greatest … century … ever! 🙂

  25. William, as a further, positive, response to your concerns—which every dad knows that young folks feel, `cuz dad’s feel them too!—I posted to Dick Lipton’s blog topic “Guessing the Truth” the most positive-yet-realistic response that I could conceive.
    Begin a contrarian, this inspired me to ask … Sidles, is that the best you can do? Can’t you conceive an even more positive-yet-realistic response, to these very real, very urgent concerns?
    This construction is proving to be considerable challenge; perhaps other QIS folks would like to attempt it. Because (obviously) there’s more than one QIS path-forward, and it is neither necessary nor desirable that everyone follow the same path.

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