06/01/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Jan 14, 2012

How Deeply Can We Afford to Cut Library Budgets?

April and May are critical months for local governments whose fiscal years begin the first of July. In the continuing economic downturn, local leaders are struggling with further reductions in services - some for the third consecutive year. Against the service loss, they are balancing increases in taxes and fees on a population that has more residents unemployed and more homeowners "underwater" with their mortgages.

The choices are not pretty, and force a conversation about what is "core" and what isn't. Certainly, there are services that local governments, especially non-rural governments, have to provide: police protection, fire service, emergency medical services, water, and sewers. However, the question for these services is how much of the service to provide, rather than whether or not to provide the service.

Even more challenging questions surround services that are often labeled "discretionary," but are important to the quality of life in a community and to social equity. The latter objective, social equity, becomes especially critical in a down economy. During the boom years, social equity was about the abject poor. Today, many middle, and upper-middle income households have seen their worlds shattered and need assistance they would have never anticipated. The most vulnerable are even more desperate than before.

Our journey to economic recovery will hinge on the ability of people to make connections, enhance their skills, and apply for, and get jobs. The way we do these things in today's world is through the internet. Individuals, like governments, have to decide what is core in their budget; maintaining internet access is a challenge when you're unemployed and trying not to lose your home and healthcare.

This is where America's public libraries emerge as a core service for local governments; however, this is not to say that library budgets should not get trimmed, hours reduced, or even some branches closed. If a local government cannot keep every firehouse open it may be hard to argue that every branch library must be kept open. At the same time, libraries are emerging as "first responders" in the economic crisis.

Just as it is important to understand the implications of cutbacks in public safety and public works, it is important to understand the implications of reduced access to public libraries.

For much of our population, library services are no longer discretionary. A recent study by the University of Washington helps bring the issue into sharper focus. The following percentages are of people who used a public library computer or its internet access last year:

  • 1/3 of Americans age 14 or older.
  • 44% of persons living in households below the federal poverty level.
  • 61% of young adults (age 14-24) living in poverty.
  • 54% of seniors (65 and older) living in poverty.

Among those using library access, 40% of library computer users were working on career and employment, and 42% of users were working on education and training.

Beyond the compelling role that public libraries play in technology access, they also provide for social engagement. Libraries provide a non-commercial place for people to go and avoid social isolation. The public access computers also enable people to remain connected with their network of family and friends - as some 60% of the access users did.

Professional librarians provide the human touch that makes the technology actually useful for patrons. Librarians serve as advisors and guides, for people who are new to the technologies that are now used by every major employer, to advertise their vacancies and receive job applications. They also provide the guidance for access to government services, which are also increasingly web-based.

We are reaching the point where residents without e-mail and internet access will be disconnected and disenfranchised from much of society. As local governments conclude their spring budget deliberations, they must ask, "How much can we afford to cut the libraries?"

For the University of Washington study, go to...