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Kenneth C. Davis Headshot

Libraries Are America's Lifelines. Leave Them Alone

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Michael Bloomberg may be the ultimate IT Guy. Okay, maybe that's still Bill Gates. But the point is, Michael Bloomberg took Information and Technology and made himself an empire with Bloomberg News. Then he became King of New York -- or at least Mayor -- and a very good one at that, as far as I am concerned.

So why would a man who built his world around IT want to cripple New York's IT lifeline -- the public library?

In case you haven't heard, New York City's public library systems -- three separate library systems in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens -- are once again under siege, on the chopping block, threatened with draconian cuts in the face of New York City's Great Recession. (The cuts were outlined in an article in Library Journal.)

Library cuts in down times remind me of the classic line from Casablanca: "Round up the usual suspects." The public library is always suspect Number One when it comes to municipal budget cuts. And as librarians everywhere know, this is not a fact in New York City alone.

Underlying this reality are two simple facts. First, libraries do not have a vocal, powerful constituency. Unlike the police, teachers and firemen, they don't have a potent union or benevolent association. There is no "Library Lobby" doling out campaign contributions. But far worse, libraries tend to be viewed by all too many people in power as a luxury.

In many of these minds, the public library is stuck with an antiquated image of stern ladies shushing noisy kids, retirees borrowing the latest bestsellers and -- more recently -- homeless folk camping out in a heated corner. They are all clichés. And dumb ones at that.

I was in the bustling Mid-Manhatttan Library on Fifth Avenue recently. They had a line that the hot new Top Shop -- along with all the mostly empty retailers on the street -- would envy. Sure, some people were there to borrow books for free. But the public library, in case you haven't been in one lately, is so much more than that -- especially in these down times.

The public library is not just about borrowed books. It is about information -- the great currency of our time. And the library has, by default, become the bridge in the digital divide because it offers free access to computers. Can you imagine in this digital day looking for a job, submitting a résumé or a college application, or searching for housing without your computer? For millions of people, the library is their laptop.

And it's not just true in New York City. In Vermont, where I have a home, the digital divide may be even greater due to economic disparity. And the libraries are filled with people who need access to computers and are willing to wait for a turn. They have no choice.

Then there is education. The library is the crucial backstop to the educational system, far beyond the fundamental notion of being a "homework helper" for a school kid with a science project. From learning to read, or speak English, to having a decent place to do schoolwork or doing graduate research, the library is still a cornerstone of an educated, enlightened America.

For many people, the public library is also the visible face of the government. I've never been in City Hall, but I am in the library all the time. It is one functioning arm of the government that delivers a service efficiently, usually free of charge, and often with a smile and an offer of more help. Yes, librarians are NICE! Besides, when was the last time you saw a librarian being led away in handcuffs for taking bribes, fixing contracts or fudging the books?

And speaking of books. Books do change people. They can change society. Ask Harriet Beecher Stowe or Rachel Carson for starters. I could wax poetic about the importance that the public library played in my life. I'll stop short and say that when I was growing up, the Mt. Vernon public library was as significant to me as church and school. Maybe even more.

If education and information are going to provide the means as America digs itself out the great big hole we are in, the public library is handing out the shovels. Cut or kill the libraries and you yank away a shovel.

So please, Mayor IT Guy. And Mayors anywhere else, for that matter. Leave the libraries alone. Believe me. They are not a luxury, but a lifeline.

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