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Scott Turow

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Let-Them-Eat-Cake-Attitude Threatens to Destroy a Network of Public Assets

Posted: 02/15/11 03:26 PM ET

While our economy seems to be slowly staggering back to its feet, state and municipal governments remain hard-hit as the result of lost tax revenues, lost stimulus money and pension fund payments that have grown to monstrous size to make up for the market losses of 2007 and 2008. Those governments are cutting everywhere they can and public libraries nationwide have been one of the biggest and least deserved losers in the process.

Widespread public access to knowledge, like public education, is one of the pillars of our democracy, a guarantee that we can maintain a well-informed citizenry.

But libraries seem to be losing out in the funding battles, due, in part, to the mistaken belief that they are somehow anachronistic in an age when so many Americans have instant computer access to information through the Internet. This is, frankly, a let-them-eat-cake-attitude that threatens to destroy a network of public assets that remains critical in our country.

Millions of Americans simply cannot afford to replace what libraries have traditionally offered for free -- access to books, computers and research assistance. Ironically, the importance of these services is even greater in a time of economic uncertainty.

For Americans facing job losses, working to gain new skills and seeking assistance in an increasingly digital world, U.S. public libraries are first responders. Two-thirds of libraries report they provide the only free access to computers and the Internet in their communities. Libraries function as crucial technology hubs, not merely for free Web access, but those who need computer training and assistance. Library business centers help support entrepreneurship and retraining

For thousands and thousands of American kids, libraries are the only safe place they can find to study, a haven free from the dangers of street or the numbing temptations of television. As schools cutback services, the library looms even more important to countless children. And libraries often offer young parents the only chance they can provide to inculcate their children in a culture of books, one of the most essential building blocks for success in school.

For the elderly, libraries are often important community centers that help them escape the loneliness of old age.

Most important of all, perhaps, a library within a community stands as a testimonial to its values, its belief in universal access to literature and knowledge.

The value of all of these services has been widely accepted in our nation for at least a century. But we have now entered an era of unprecedented budget cuts.

For example, in California, Governor Brown's new proposed budget decreases General Fund assistance for public libraries by $30.4 million, eliminating the California Library Services Act, Public Library Foundation and the California Library Literacy and English Acquisition Services -- that is, access, resource sharing and adult literacy. In Texas, the cuts are even more stark, with the new budget proposing complete elimination of several programs that have either provided direct aid to libraries or irreplaceable programs, like those that created shared databases. Even in my own community, a small city on the northern edge of Chicago where a major university sits, my neighbors and I have been struggling to save a small branch library that was pivotal to the education of many neighborhood kids.

Librarians know that shrinking budgets demand hard choices, and they do not expect to be exempt as local and state governments endure the hardest times they have faced since the Depression. But it is wrong to cut library budgets disproportionately compared to other reductions, and that is what is happening around the country.

I count myself as one of millions of Americans whose life simply would not be the same without the libraries that supported my learning. We cannot take that opportunity away from so many Americans who need that help urgently now.

Scott Turow is the author most-recently of "Innocent," a sequel to "Presumed Innocent," and president of the Authors Guild.