Two reasons why I don't like the "Palace of Light" project 13

Or, call them reasons #101 and #102. Here they are (in no particular order).

Iesaki citiem:

Reason #1: This is a 19th century project in the 21st century

Here is a tale from the days when I studied in Worcester, Massachusetts. The city authorities saw Worcester as a rival to nearby Boston and decided to propel the city into the next century by constructing a number of very expensive public infrastructure objects. One such project was a renovation of the Union train station, which was completed in 2000 and cost the taxpayers about $32 million. The result was esthetically quite magnificent but hardly useful. Most of the time the huge renovated building is just...empty. The days of mass travel by train are gone, welcome to the era of airlines! Most thinking people agree that this renovation was a waste of taxpayers' money. A train station was a good idea for the XIX century. However, an airport is a much better idea for the XXIst century.

The future of "the library" as such is highly uncertain these days. I am talking about the advances in information technology and the Internet, of course. For instance, I am a professional scholar and yet I am not a heavy user of SSE-Riga's library. I am a heavy user of electronic databases such as JSTOR, which are today's repositories of worthy research papers in economics and other sciences. Access to such electronic databases is quite expensive and a privilege that is prized by scientists in any fields. What about the books? Well, I will not want to read any book in economics that comes out. There are just too many of them relative to my lifetime and the fact that my time has many other productive uses. However, advances in the ways scholars communicate to each other (electronically, again) allow me to get a pretty good idea of whether I want to read a particular book without ever seeing it physically! For example, many publishers provide an opportunity to see portions of their books on the internet. If I think a book is a worthy one, I'll buy it, or I'll have the school's library buy it. The bottom line is, there is no need for a monstrous library to keep every book physically. If the "Palace of Light" is actually built, my best guess is that I will not use it at all.

More broadly, the 19th century (and before) was when information was scarce and expensive to store. Hence the need for libraries as large physical repositories of information. The 21st century is the age when storage is dirt-cheap and, therefore, the age of overabundance of information. The world is already overflowing with information and it is just a matter of time before an average layman will become overwhelmed with it. Think about how many economics blogs are out there and whether it is physically possible keep up with even with a tiny fraction of them? The scarce resource of the new age is useful information, not any information as such. People will value services that deliver reliable information that is customized to their individual needs. I just don't see how a library fits into the new information age. It risks becoming a train station in the 21st century, a "palace of foolishness".

Reason #2: The whole enterprise smacks of embezzlement of taxpayers' money

Here is a simple recipe for embezzlement. Offer a 'friendly' party to fund a public project that is large, unique, and technically complicated, so as to minimize the number of contractors can qualify. Inflate costs to hide profits. Make sure only two contractors 'compete' for the project. One of them has to be a 'fake' one, whose offer would be clearly inferior. Take special care that no other potential contractors participate in the tender. Suppose, for a moment, that the above ‘conspiracy theory’ is a correct description of the events that have taken place over the last few years. Can we say anything about the amount of embezzlement?

Not many local contractors can argue they have much experience in building 'palaces' so only two local consortia applied. The price initially offered by "PBLC and others" consortium (189 million Ls) is higher than the price offered by "Skonto and others" (139 million Ls) by such a ridiculously high amount that it's quite clear who calls the shots here. It would have worked very nicely if it was not for the need to get rid of Estonia's Merks. The excuse used by the locals was an allegation that Merks is corrupt. The Estonian authorities have, indeed, launched an investigation into allegations of bribery against Merks. This fact notwithstanding, we have to remember that nobody is guilty in anything until proven in the court of law. The decision to exclude Merks was, therefore, absolutely arbitrary. This can only be interpreted as using a doubtful excuse to make sure "Skonto and others" get the contract.

What is interesting about the whole story is that (understandably, angered) Merks came forward with an offer to build the "palace" for 87 million Ls. I think this is a much better estimate of the true cost of building this library. Anybody who ever renovated his or her apartment (or a house) knows that the only effective means of ensuring a lower price is to auction the work to various construction brigades. The amount of technical details even in the simplest construction work is quite high and the specialist will always find ways to fool a non-specialist. Only by having different construction teams compete against each other can one ensure that the price being offered is close enough to the minimal possible price. If you buy the above conspiracy theory, the whole "Palace of Light" tender has been a fake, with Merks being the closest to the real competition. This may then provide us with a proxy of how much of taxpayers’ money will be pocketed by large construction companies and their protégés in Saeima. The government agency has just signed the contract to build the library for 135 million Ls. I guess you can do the math yourselves.

In Latvian here

Iesaki citiem:
Creative commons c6ae3e51884b139b45a669ce829ac99646bf0ceb328fc95963f1703a58a032d0 CREATIVE COMMONS LICENCE ĻAUJ RAKSTU PĀRPUBLICĒT BEZ MAKSAS, ATSAUCOTIES UZ AUTORU UN PORTĀLU PROVIDUS.LV, TAČU PUBLIKĀCIJU NEDRĪKST LABOT VAI PAPILDINĀT. AICINĀM ATBALSTĪT PROVIDUS.LV AR ZIEDOJUMU!

Komentāri (13) secība: augoša / dilstoša

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Kaspars 22.11.2008 11:18
In Jurmala there are a number of projects that look just like that, only used as apartment buildings. Maybe we should have converted one of them. www.pardod.net

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Lexy 04.06.2008 12:02
I think we should close all coffee shops, dance clubs, as well as any other venues to meet people as the social networking Web sites ought to replace any human interaction.

Well, at least I would have thought that if I agreed with the author's first point on the superfluity of libraries in general, and the Castle of Light in particular, in the modern age.

Look, books are still published because cuddling up with a book is easier than with a computer regardless of its size. History, it appears, shows when one type of media is replaced by another one. Movies were thoughts to be killed by TV, radio thought to be killed by TV, video, as MTV would have us believe, killed the radio star. None of those media outlets vanished into a thin air. They are still in our lives in an evolved format.

Libraries will remain here. Even in the age of data bases.

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historian 28.05.2008 11:15
Cedrins gets train ridership right. The national US passenger train network, Amtrak, had a 20% increase in ridership last the past 12 months, while local and regional public transit systems are experiencing current explosive growth in use. People have discovered it far more convenient to utilize trains, which can take them from city center to city center, rather than waste hours of waiting time at airports after long taxi rides to airport perimeters. Sometimes there is a lag between the investment in infrastructure and its payoff, and train stations built in the past are now delivering their benefits.

While hard to measure, libraries provide a useful, if not essential, socializing function. They introduce youth to learning, which may result in their using JSTOR and other databases as advanced learners. Mature learners are not created, but formed over a lifetime of exposure to institutions, such as libraries. Moreover, they provide a "one-stop-shop" location for research in which people may access internet and print materials.

Additionally, we can turn the "crowding out" argument around. Why should the public subsidize the private accumulation of capital through individual expenditure on books? Why do we need, say 1000 private copies of a book when perhaps 1 copy would do? Which model is more efficient, using less resources, and more environmentally friendly? Or, better yet, perhaps have the same 1000 copies of a book, but in a 1000 libaries,w which might then reach hundreds of thousands of readers instead of just 1000. Also, many people may wish to browse through books they are unsure about wishing to own. Without libraries they may never be exposed to ideas contained within books they are unfamiliar with, or unsure about purchasing given lack of knowledge. Furthermore, libraries provide public meeting space for civil society formation and civic engagement.

All this said, the issue of construction cost should be carefully examined to prevent another South Bridge fiasco...

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Pēteris Cedriņš 28.05.2008 10:13
The analogy to a train station is appropriate, I think -- the fact is that trains are not just 19th C; they're also 21st C. In many places, they're making a comeback, because of advantages that were overlooked during the decline of rail service. The Worcester project you mention wasn't just for trains, either -- it's a transportation center, including bus service utilized by ca. 200 000 passengers a year. You seem to suggest that the esthetic has no value.

The library is not just about physical, "old-fashioned" books -- though we *do* still need a place for those, esp. old ones. It is about information in all its forms, and it is about public space. You write of JSTOR: "Access to such electronic databases is quite expensive and a privilege that is prized by scientists in any fields." Indeed -- and so people can use things like JSTOR at the library.

One Will Sherman offers "33 Reasons Why Libraries and Librarians are Still Extremely Important" here --
http://www.degreetutor.com/library/adult-continued-education...

Hilary Schor has an article entitled "Reflections on the Future of the Library" here --
http://www.usc.edu/academe/acsen/resources/newsletter/0001v2...

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mikelis 27.05.2008 16:16
vyacheslav:

I dont quite understand your first point, which books would you be referring to as bad books or as ``good time'' books? Literature? Photography? Art? Certainly not economics. And who is to be the final arbiter of such a system?

I dont think you need to buy most books, and I and most people dont have the rescources to buy all the books we want, which I why I'd check out the books I cant afford. I use Amazon all the time, and order many books from there, i read plenty of book reviews in the new york times, NY review of books, The Atlantic, ect. ect. but reading book reviews and looking on amazon pages is really no substitute to seeing a good section of books in a book store or library to find what you need. Part of looking is discovering whats out there, and as much as i like amazon (also from Seattle) its no alternative to a library.

thanks for the discussion, but I remain unconvinced on the first point you've made above and the subsequent argument. I'm willing to concede on the cost of the facility, as I dont know the relative argument, but I'm surprised that you sound opposed to library building as such, especially since its such a clear public good in that it gives access to information to the poorer members of society.

/m

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Vyacheslav 27.05.2008 15:47
Mikelis:
Some books are public goods, but some are public ..bads. Suppose there are two kinds of books: the "how to be a nice person" book and "having a good time" book. The "nice person" book is a public good because others benefit from having nice person around. Nobody else benefits from the "good time" book, except for the guy having reading this book, of course. So I'll buy your argument on the need to subsidize readership of "nice person" books. As to the "good time" books, it's not clear why some should pay for the good time of others. And that's the question. What do they read there and whether it's all a public good?

As to your second point. Well, you don't need to buy most books. Go to Amazon: most publishers allow a peek inside a book so you can figure out whether you really like what's inside. Or check out the critics' review. That's what I said in the blog: the book are many, their quality varies, and their number is increasing, you can't (and will not want to) read them all.

In any case, I think it will be my last on this one. Thanks for the discussion!

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Mikelis 26.05.2008 17:57
Vyacheslav, i think your point about overcrowding is accurate, and in some ways its a good thing. One of the most important public functions a library serves is that it levels the playing field. It allows the poor just like the rich access to information, books and learning. And of course one result will be book sales may decline since people arent forced to buy every book they want to read, but more access for people who cant afford those books is a greater public good I think, and one that is a proper use of state monies. Wouldnt you agree that thats a worthy goal? Shouldnt we be trying to build an educated society, with as much opportunity for all the people that live here and not a silver that has the capital to advance?

I still buy the books that mean the most to me, and I have hundreds, but I dont want to own every book i've ever read, some of them were pretty terrible, and this is part of the function that the library serves. I cant imagine doing any serious research of primary source material without a library, that information is certainly not all online. And bookstores have no where near the amount of books of a good library, so its not really a competitor.
I'd like to have a personal collection to rival Umberto Eco's, which is said to be 30,000 in one of his homes, I dont have the income for that, and neither does most of the western world, this is what the library would be for, allowing people that lack the finances to buy every book they want, to read those books. Browsing through stacks of books in a good library has no rival anywhere. Certainly not on the internet.

/m

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Vyacheslav Dombrovsky 26.05.2008 16:36
Mikelis:

Yes, I am pretty sure the part-time library jobs for grad students became due to less usage. That was the explicit reason provided. And of course I don't have data on this. After all, this is a blog, not a working paper.

Your second point is more interesting. I had a quick look at the study for Seattle, thanks for the pointer. It's much better than the LNB 'study', which is, frankly, pretty bad. It is still far from what I'd call a rigorous study, so I am not convinced.

In any case, they do report sibstantial increase in attendance, which is believable. But here is something to think about. What if the library is just 'crowding out' private expenditure on books? Suppose you want to buy a book. You'd typically go to the bokstore, maybe pre-read some books there, etc. Since you were in the US you know that most bookstore offer facilities for reading book in the book store, but they are scarce and maybe not a preferred option for many. Now there is a large library, which offers most book 'for free'. Often, they even let you take book home! One can imagine that some people would use the library, rather than a bookstore. In other words, a library would simply crowd out private expenditure, i.e. many books would be read even without a library. And why should taxpayers pay for this?

In any case, as I said, I am sure the library will have a role to play. After all the train stations are still here and being used by many. However, I think that in the future this role will become smaller and smaller.

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mikelis 25.05.2008 12:24
What other evidence can you provide that the use of libraries in the U.S. has diminished beyond your observation that part-time jobs for graduate students have dropped? And can a decrease in the number of jobs be only explained as a decrease in library usage? Isnt it possible that jobs were cut due to budgetary restrictions?

Neither Mentor nor I have portrayed libraries as ‘’powerhouses of development’‘or said anything about the costs of this library, any suggestion otherwise is just a distraction.

Do you have any evidence that libraries would not provide some sort of boost to a local economy? Seattle’s library had an economic impact study done, availble at. www.spl.org/pdfs/SPLCentral_Library_Economic_Impacts.pdf
And it received publish support. The public voted for a library bond issue of about $200 million, a similar vote in Latvia would likely fail as the survey published in Diena showed.
They’ve also seen library usage go up, not down, but then Seattle has the highest number of residents with a university education in the U.S., an educated city with a reading population, one that thrives partly due to the high-tech industries its educated populace supports, high-tech industries that supposedly riga wants to gain.

Maybe that’s not Riga. The libraries here are not easy to use, I haven’t been back since the last time I went and discovered that you couldn’t browse the books section, that you had too look through the card catalogue then fill out a slip of paper requesting the book, along with your passport number, before the book was found and had to be read on the premises. This was a long time ago, so I don’t know what its like now.
I wont use a library like that, and I know SSE is different, but its not a big public library. One of the best reasons to build a open, modern library will be the function it serves for the public, as a place the people can use free of charge. Big libraries are not only repositories of books, they allow the public to use the space, and there are few, far too few in my opinion, places for the public to use that do not cost money.

/m

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rb 23.05.2008 19:18
I think Riga does need a free of charge public library. Not because of the stacks of books that it will offer (sooner or later all books will be in electronic format, which one can then read on computer or as a printout), but because sit and study free of charge. You will not see a lot of economists sitting there, but it will not be empty.

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Vyacheslav 23.05.2008 14:19
Mikelis and Mentor:
Your points are well taken. I did not say the libraries will vanish alltogether (although I don't rule this our either), but that their future is highly uncertain. Universities' research libraries like SSE-Riga's will exist but probably in a much more specialized and leaner way. Also in the U.S. universities, I have seen signs that the use of libraries is diminished over the last years. For example, I know for sure that the number of part-time library jobs for grad students went down.

In any case, the bottom line is that there might still be some place for public libraries, just like we still have the train stations. But there is still little point in portraying them as some "powerhouses of development", and put over hundred million lats of taxpayers' money into them.

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Mentor 22.05.2008 18:57
I see your first point but like mikelis I don't fully agree either. But for the library to be (much) more useful, it should be linked in some form to universities for the purposes of research and as far as I know that isn't done. A pity.

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mikelis 22.05.2008 11:09
i cant agree with point one, i sit in front of a computer all day and I'm not about to read books in an electronic format. I also studied in the U.S. and enjoyed the public libraries there, sometimes the best way to find good books in any subject is to puruse the stacks. Riga does not have that many places where people can go that do not require money. Big library projects in the U.S. have not turned into "palace of foolishness'' and instead have brought a lot of the public through its doors, Seattle is a good example.
on point two, i dont know anything about the funding structure, or corruption or lackthereof, i dont dispute it, i just dont know.
m.

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