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Our Public Library Lifeline Is Fraying. We'll Be Sorry When it Snaps

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This is National Library Week, a time normally reserved for celebrating an institution that plays a vital role in many of our cities, towns and counties. Instead, many libraries, particularly public libraries, are being decimated by budget cuts at a time when library services are needed most.

Libraries, once considered a necessity, are now seen as a luxury. They are low-hanging fruit for budget pluckers, particularly at the state and local levels of government in communities across the country. It's been a slow death by attrition over the past couple of years. First, it was the budget for books and materials because, after all, books and materials aren't people. No matter that books and materials are what makes a library, well, a library. Then came the hours of operation, then the staff, then the closure of branches. No two communities are approaching the situation identically, but in cities from Boston to Indianapolis, the stories are increasingly dire.

In Boston, the trustees voted to close four branches. There was lots of protest, and Mayor Thomas Menino still has to make the final call, but the situation doesn't look good.

The Florida legislature is considering eliminating state aid to libraries entirely, while the New Jersey legislature is only looking a at a 74 percent cut. Indianapolis and surrounding Marion County are also looking at closing six branches and cutting back programs and staff.

In my home community of Montgomery County, Maryland, formerly one of the wealthiest local jurisdictions, the County Council is looking at a budget for fiscal year 2011 of $29 million - down from $40 million just three years ago. This year, it is slated for a 23 percent cut - one of the largest of any agency, on top of cuts in the last fiscal year with percentage decreases larger than all but one county agency. And this is for a county of about one million residents in which 70 percent hold library cards. It's even worse across the river, in Fairfax County, Virgina, where libraries were declared a "discretionary" service while cutting 30 of 54 full-time librarians. Libraries discretionary? That's nuts.

These are only some of the stories. They are being repeated endlessly across the country, perhaps even where you live. Some places put a high value on their libraries. Contrast the $29 million of my county for the $51 million library budget in Seattle, a city of about 600,000. Sure, Seattle needed to cut the library budget, but the fact that they started out much higher than my home says something about their priorities. Sadly, Seattle is the exception, not the rule.

One problem for libraries in some jurisdictions is that they don't fit squarely into any one policymaker's domain, like public safety or a school system. Libraries serve a range of purposes - they help teach children to read, they help students work on projects, they provide meeting space for tutoring, they provide Internet access. They serve students, seniors, immigrants. They provide assistance to the unemployed. Libraries combine education, workforce development, socialization, recreation. But they aren't the school board, or a social services agency, and so generally get buried in the larger budgets.

The cuts come at a time when library use is increasing, for all types of services. The one that hits home the most these days is the crucial access to the Internet. A study by the Information School at the University of Washington found that: "Low-income adults are more likely to rely on the public library as their sole access to computers and the Internet than any other income group. Overall, 44 percent of people living below the federal poverty line used computers and the Internet at their public libraries."

In addition, the study reported: "Americans across all age groups reported they used library computers and Internet access. Teenagers are the most active users. Half of the nation's 14- to 18-year-olds reported that they used a library computer during the past year, typically to do school homework."

Ask any librarian, or read any of the stories about the budget cuts, and one message that stands out loud and clear is that the Internet at libraries is a lifeline for many. Here the unemployed look for jobs, and apply for jobs - many companies these days accept applications online only. Here people learn what many would consider rudimentary skills - how to attach a document to an email, for example. Is this what a library is supposed to do? Yes. The Internet has become an integral part of the library mission.

Internet support for libraries is national policy, going back to the 1996 Telecommunications Act and the amendment from current Senators Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WVA) as well as former Nebraska senators, the late James Exon and Robert Kerrey. Today, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) is trying to update the policy for the 21st century.

But it would be a mistake to say that the Internet replaces libraries. It doesn't. It's an adjunct. More than one budget officer has said that people don't need libraries because they can go online. First, many people can't go online due to their economic circumstances. Second, librarians help to guide research. A simple online search will not always achieve desired results, as anyone who does this well knows. And libraries still have those quaint old things called books, many of which aren't online. The printed medium still has a lot of attraction for many, from the youngest readers whose parents check out armloads of picture books, to the serious readers and researchers who realize there is more to find than what's online.

It would also be a mistake to say that bookstores replace libraries. Nothing against bookstores, but they aren't a public resource. Quite obviously, who have to pay to enjoy the fruits of a bookstore. Libraries are there for everyone.

Politicians are loathe to raise money to pay for libraries. That's the kiss of death to an aroused citizenry that wants services but doesn't want to pay for them or, in some cases doesn't value them at all. Still, it's nice that around the country, people are protesting the cuts to their local libraries. In some cases, library lovers have formed foundations or other organizations to supplement their libraries. These are to be lauded, and supported, but they aren't a substitute for the public commitment that led to public libraries in the first place.

Let's give the last word to someone who has a secret ambition to be a librarian, but whose career went in a different direction. No less an authority than Keith Richards put it best in his forthcoming autobiography: "When you are growing up there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully: the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you. The public library is a great equaliser."

Happy National Library Week.