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Powerball, Personal Finance, and Library Ethics — What do you think?

In the library community, there’s an ongoing tension between providing the books customers want and not providing “bad” or “harmful” ones. Since the library is tax-supported, our collection is there to serve the people of the county—the tax payers. At the same time, there are some books which the taxpayers may be better off not reading.

For instance, we don’t have books with instructions on making bombs, hijacking, covering up a crime, etc. Sure, some of our non-fiction books might give people ideas, but that’s not quite the same. (Which is why the whole Patriot Act library records thing annoys me. I haven’t seen a single terrorist-type book in the library.)

In some areas, it’s a little harder. For example, we have some really sucky personal finance and investing books. But judging the difference between a “good” PF book and a bad one is much more subjective.

Last week, though, I came up with a PF book that I really do want removed from the library system. It’s all about how to win big at Powerball.

It seems so irresponsible that we’d offer this book. Powerball is entirely a game of luck. Unlike poker, which takes some skill and other games that allow one to count cards or manipulate the odds, Powerball isn’t determined by what numbers won last week. This card seems to have been written by a shyster looking to milk money out of the hopeful and desperate.

The good news is that the book is old, so I’m going to suggest that the shelf-weeding group take it out of the system. They’re trying to thin our books, since we have more than the shelves can hold. It’s an ideal candidate, since it doesn’t circulate much and is kind of ugly. I just have to wait until the lady who checked it out brings it back.

What do you think? Is a book on how to win at Powerball harmless? Or gray enough that a library should have it? Or something that shouldn’t have ever been bought?

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

mamacita March 1, 2008 at 3:41 pm

It’s good to have it in the library. People can check the book out and see that it’s nonsense, and they won’t have to waste the money on buying the book. Even if they decide that they believe they can “game the system” at least they haven’t spent money on the book and enriched its crooked author.

Minimum Wage March 1, 2008 at 4:42 pm

How to win at Powerball? They have lots of books like that in the NYC subway newsstands. That’s where they belong, not in the library.

Susannah March 1, 2008 at 4:52 pm

I would never have wasted the money. There are too many good books to buy. Now you have it, kicking it off the shelf isn’t a bad plan.

Until recently, I worked part-time at a bookstore. Every few weeks, I’d encounter a customer in the business section who was buying one of the b*tch genre books–how to succeed in business by general bad behavior. I was always tempted to come over and announce that we had a special: buy the book in question, and receive a copy of “The No-Assholes Rule” for free.

Come to think of it, there were a couple of customers in all areas of the store I wanted to do that to. Even when their purchases had nothing to do with business.

I’d be tempted to make the Powerball book a required tandem checkout with Your Money or Your Life, or something. πŸ™‚

RacerX March 1, 2008 at 6:23 pm

Powerball should go and no one would miss it πŸ™‚

However, it is such a slippery slope on pulling books. What if the next group wants to yank “Catcher In the Rye?” or Tom Sawyer” Cause they give kids bad ideas?

Who guards the guardians?

fathersez March 1, 2008 at 8:45 pm

Mrs. M,

Racer has a good point. When we take on the role of being a guardian for the public at large, our “scope of responsibility” is so blurred.

Some guardians may do things that they think is right, while the “guarded” will scream their heads off.

The best is to leave the book as it is, unless it violates the library’s older books to make way for newer books rule or something like that.

Anyone who read that book and invests his money in Powerball would probably have already wired all his money to the Nigerian Prince who has US$200m in a secret bank account.

Andrew Stevens March 2, 2008 at 3:35 am

I’m not fond of that argument. It’s not censorship for a library to decide what books to buy and keep. If it were, we’d require every library to carry every book, an obvious impossibility. Should public libraries carry porn novels? (I don’t mean Lolita here; I mean pure smut.) One of the things that irritates me is professional library associations circulating lists of “banned” books, meaning books that had been pulled from school libraries. Pulling a book from a library (or not stocking it in the first place) is not even remotely the same thing as banning it. And librarians should use language more responsibly.

This is not to suggest that removing “Huckleberry Finn” and “Catcher in the Rye” from school libraries is a good idea. The people who suggest and/or agree to that are knuckleheads. But it’s not banning and it’s not censorship.

However, when you say it’s not circulating much, it doesn’t do your case much good that someone has the book out right now. Obviously, it’s circulating a little, so I wonder how honest you’re being with yourself on that score. (I am reminded of when I got out Finnegan’s Wake from my local library several years ago, I was the first person ever to take it out though it had been in the library for at least thirty years. I don’t think they ever considered pulling it off the shelves.)

The book is probably terrible and, moreover, if you’re right about how old it is, it’s probably out of date even if it had good advice (the odds to Powerball changed a few years ago). But you’re not quite correct about Powerball. While the odds don’t change and there is very likely no number-picking strategy which could possibly succeed, there is one important variable which does change. The jackpot changes and, before they changed the odds at least (I don’t know about now), there were times when the jackpot occasionally reached such a high level that buying a Powerball ticket could have a positive expectation, i.e. the present value of a ticket was likely worth more than the $1 you paid. I still wouldn’t recommend bothering to buy even at those times since the variance is absolutely enormous so this is a super high-risk investment. It is also at least theoretically possible that the Powerball people are not as smart about rotating their machines and adjusting them as they ought to be, i.e. it is within the realm of possibility that some of their machines (or the balls used in them) are biased and that this can be used to a gambler’s advantage. I seriously doubt this, but it’s not impossible. So it’s not the case that nothing useful can be said about Powerball. As I said, though, the book you’re talking about is likely fraudulent.

Minimum Wage March 2, 2008 at 12:43 pm

I have no interested in yanking books which contain controversial ideas. But books which suggest you can prevail over mathematical reality (without disclosing the astronomical odds you face) don’t deserve taxpayer subsidy.

CatherineL March 2, 2008 at 12:55 pm

Hi Mrs M – call me dumb, but I’m not even sure what powerball is. I thought it was one of those little rubber balls that bounced really high.

I understand what we mean though. Should we really be censoring what people read, then putting books with bad advice on the shelves?

I don’t think we should. A bad personal finance book can be just as damaging to some people as a book on terrorism.

And lets face it, if someone wants to blow something up, they’ll find out how to do it whether they can get a library book on the subject or not. I really hate any censorship in reading.

I’ve read some weird books when I was younger, and I let my son read what he likes – even Marilyn Manson stuff. We don’t have to agree with what we read – the more we can read and learn and make up our own minds about stuff the better. It helps us make sense of the world.

Funny about Money March 2, 2008 at 12:56 pm

Lordie! I am SO knee-jerk on the subject of censorship that my initial response was “censorship is censorship is censorship/ a censor by any other name is still a censor.”

Yet really: beating the odds at Powerball is at base a stupid premise. Should we censor stupidity? Possibly not. Probably not.

But should the taxpayer dollar actively support stupidity? Well…it already does. All those state lotteries, Powerball included, are supported by the taxpayer, who profits mightily from them. Indeed, this book will redound greatly to the taxpayer benefit. So that argument doesn’t hold water.

Overall, I guess I come down in favor of stocking the stupid book. Annoyingly enough.

A March 2, 2008 at 7:26 pm

If it’s just how to win at powerball; the book’s worthless. The mathematics behind the game can be explained in about two sentences and there’s not really a way to play the system. If the book included all lottery games (since it’s old I doubt it), then there is some value to the probability mathematics.

I’m of the opinion that a book should be removed due to a lack of circulation, being old, or the material in it outdated. Requesting books be removed due to objections to the content is a slippery slope.

Fiscal Musings March 2, 2008 at 11:14 pm

I’m not a fan of the idea that a book should be taken out just because it’s not “good content”. I think people ought to be able to make their own choices, even if they’re stupid choices.

Michael March 3, 2008 at 10:02 am

Librarians consider themselves to be cultural shapers throught suggesting books, making book displays, and holding events in the library. In the colleges of library science, they are taught to expose children to the of the ALA, and if children’s parents don’t believe those ideas, the librarian should subvert them. What I am saying here is that those concerned about guarding the guardians are not crazy, but the current danger isn’t book removal.

jodie March 3, 2008 at 1:49 pm

As a librarian, I would tend to err on the side of keeping the book rather than risk being caught up in a case of possible censorship. The ALA Library Bill of Rights says it all:

We all know that the lottery is not a way to make money, but I’m guessing a lot of your library users play the lottery and would therefore find the book of use. Just because I personally don’t like the lottery doesn’t mean I, as a librarian, can pull that book from the shelf. Just my opinion! πŸ™‚

mrsmicah March 3, 2008 at 1:53 pm

One comparison, though, might be with the “Gentle Tasady” books. It was said that people had discovered this hidden tribe in the Philippines and that it was awesome because they’d never met the outside world before.

Turns out they were a publicity stunt put on by the government.

Those books are still on our shelves. But that information is about as true as Powerball strategies…. Is it actually censorship to pull a book that’s a hoax?

(We do have comparatively more useful books on gambling which I don’t like but I’m ok with having because I believe they’re factual)

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