Book Burning Hoax Results in Huge Support for Michigan Public Library

Sometimes it takes a truly imaginative hoax to jolt us into realizing how much we value the public. That’s what happened in Troy, Michigan last summer.

Nationwide, over 90 percent of public library money comes from local property tax dollars.  Thus every time a public library needs money it has to go to the voters.  In most cases the voters respond favorably.

But not in Troy, Michigan.  Vigorous anti-tax, anti-public campaigns by local tea party groups persuaded voters to reject a small property tax increase to keep the public library open, not once but twice.  The last time was in November 2010 when four separate proposals were defeated.  These ballot rejections forced the library to reduce staff by over 30 percent.  Fourteen people left in 2011 because of uncertainty about the library’s future.  In the six months before the August 2, 2011 vote the Troy library was in shut down mode.

In the midst of a campaign dominated by anti-tax slogans a new group surfaced, Safeguarding American Families.   It took a different tack, putting up signs around town saying, “Vote to close Troy library Aug 2. Book burning party Aug 5.”  It invited everyone to its Facebook page called, “Book Burning Party”.  On July 10, 2011 Tweeted, “There are 200,000 reasons to close the Troy Library.  They’re called books.”

Hundreds of enraged citizens responded via social media. The campaign became national and international news.   Then two weeks before the election Safeguarding American Families announced that it was all a hoax.  They actually supported the ballot measure.   The campaign was intended to refocus the debate from one single mindedly about taxes to one about the value of libraries.

And it worked.  On August 2nd, by the good citizens of Troy overwhelmingly (58-42%) voted to save their public library.

The authors of the book burning campaign put together a marvelous video to explain what they did and why.  Take a look.



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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.