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Does a civilization that won’t support its libraries deserve to survive?

June 10, 2011

The New York Public Library: Not immune.

The fundamental institution in any community is its library. You go to the symphony for music, the museum for art, the theater for drama. But at the library you can learn about all three, plus science, history, literature — the whole cultural enchilada.

Six-week summer creative writing course begins June 14 at the Florida Center for the Literary Arts.

So, of course, in these straightened times, libraries are the first things to go on the chopping block.

In Burbank, for example, libraries (and fire departments) face more than half a million dollars in cuts while a declining municipal golf course is about to get more than $4 million in debt relief and new loans.

In Troy, Michigan, a landmark library, with connections to famous writers from Dr. Seuss to Isaac Asimov to Kingsley Amis, is set to close by August unless voters approve a “dedicated local tax” in a special election August 2.

In Britain austerity measures threaten more than 600 (!) libraries, while the American Library Association reports 19 states reduced library funding.  The ALA’s annual report found 72 percent of libraries report budget cuts and 43 percent report staff cuts.

In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg has proposed nearly $40 million in cuts, which means some of the system’s 90 branches might be open only three days a week.

Here in South Florida, Sunday hours have been eliminated by the Broward County Library system, the Sunset Strip branch was closed altogether, and 312 staff members have been cut in the past four years.

Miami-Dade has fared better, managing an $11-million shortfall without reducing evening or weekend hours and without closing any branches, largely because it’s funded directly by property taxes and doesn’t have to compete with other agencies for dollars.

What’s the big deal, you ask? Why do we need to spend tax dollars to support libraries when you can get millions of books on your Kindle?  Am I indulging in nostalgia for a cultural institution from my childhood, one that’s based on that outmoded technology known as books?


While I’ll argue to my last breath for the superiority of the codex over any digital reading system, the truth is that libraries function as much more than a repository of books.

People looking for jobs flood the library to use the free internet service, according to the Miami Herald, which reports that traffic in Miami-Dade libraries shot up from 5.9 million in 2006-2007 to 8.3 million in 2009-2010.

“When people have to tighten their belts, the first things that they cancel is their Internet access, their cable, their entertainment,” said Victoria Galana, the public information officer for Miami-Dade Public Library. “Since we supply all of that for free, we’re seeing people come in for higher numbers.”

Even as the need for services goes up, programming is eliminated. Julie Hunter, associate director in Broward, says programming has been slashed, from computer training to finanical literacy courses, from author appearances to book readings for children.

Yet a study cited by the ALA shows that libraries are one of the soundest investments a city or county can make. An economic-impact analysis conducted by the University of Pennsylvania found that the return on investment in Philadelphia libraries “more than justifies the cost.”

Libraries created more than $30 million in value for Philadelphia in 2010. “An estimated 8,600 businesses could not have been started, sustained or grown without the resources respondents acquired at the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP). Direct economic impact: Almost $4 million.”

“All across the United States, large and small cities are closing public libraries or curtailing their hours of operations,” said the Pulitzer prize-winning poet Charles Simic. “‘The greatest nation on earth’, as we still call ourselves, no longer has the political will to arrest its visible and precipitous decline and save the institutions on which the workings of our democracy depend.”

Or, in a quote widely attributed to a (possibly fictional) Canadian librarian with the unlikely name of Eleanor Crumblehume: “Cutting libraries in a recession is like cutting hospitals in a plague.”

And yet quite apart from the public library’s utilitarian purposes — helping people find jobs, or businesses to better compete — the argument in favor of its purely cutural value is not yet archaic.

For one thing,  ebooks have not yet done a very good job of replacing printed books. Oh, ho, ho, don’t take my word for it — I readily admit my anti-Kindle bias. But how about this argument from PC World, entitled “Why E-Books Are Bad For You?” You can read it for yourself, but I have to say it gave me a warm, tingly feeling all over.

Some hope for the public library glimmers here and there. In Britain a group called the Women’s Institue, which has more than 200,000 members, has joined the fight to save the nation’s libraries.

“WI members clearly recognise the worth that local library services bring to communities, often in isolated areas, and we will now work hard to prevent such services being removed from the areas where they are often needed most,” says Ruth Bond, WI chair.

Having marshalled all these facts and figures and linked to their sources elsewhere on the Webbernet, I think I have earned a tiny bit of bookish nostalgia. So let me use it to quote British author Kingsley Amis, from a letter he wrote to the Troy, Michigan, library in 197o:

“Whatever else you may not have, if you have books you have everything,” Amis wrote. “Use your library.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2011 1:20 pm

    hear ye! hear ye!!

  2. June 10, 2011 2:01 pm

    I agree completely. The trouble is the book is under siege. In libraries, in stores and almost everywhere. A buck comes first. Whether buying or in the libraries. We have become a society where it is more important to make sure the wealthy 4% of the population get trillions in tax give a ways than to fund these libraries. Schools are being run out of business. Children not educated. Books are a business first. In stories and libraries. It is a shame that libraries are being taken away. It is such a wealth to a society. It is not just the politicians though. It is the business community also.
    “Reading is the gateway to your dreams. Everything you do or dream of doing in life will come through reading.”–Michael John McCann

    It means almost nothing unless you throw a couple of dollars at it. Sad but true. I used to like just the quiet sound some times at a library.

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