The 20th century was a renaissance for libraries in the Western world when the United States, France, and Britain opened libraries in most major cities during the Cold War. Libraries played an important role in the advancement and sharing of ideas and information on current economic, political and cultural affairs during the ideological battle between East and West.
Today, libraries continue to serve as beacons of democracy because they offer free and equal access to information for all, regardless of race, ethnicity, ability, or economic status. Libraries represent an individual's right to acquire knowledge, explore and achieve.
In 2007 the Miami-Dade Public Library System was awarded the National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the nation's highest honor conferred on museums and libraries for service to the community.
A year later, new branches opened and older branches were upgraded in accordance with the 13-year capital plan approved by the Board of County Commission in 2002. Materials and equipment circulation reached an all-time high of 9,224,050 in 2009 and library visits reached 23,026,231. Then the cutting began.
Since 2010, library revenues -- determined by property tax rates set by the Miami-Dade County Commission -- have been slashed by 55 percent. Yet, countywide property taxes were reduced only 2.78 percent.
The result has, unsurprisingly, been devastating. The free Science, Math, and Reading Tutoring Program (SMART), that provided 29,000 hours of academic support a year, was eliminated. Two of four library bookmobiles have been taken off the road and regular neighborhood stops have dwindled from 48 to 28. Staff reductions have made the recruitment and training of volunteers for the adult literacy program unmanageable, rendering the program essentially unavailable to the 250,000 adults who need it.
Staff reductions and less funding have reduced or eliminated other programs focusing on early childhood literacy and operating hours were drastically reduced. Professional librarians have been laid off by the hundreds, and the book buying budget is virtually dry. A parent looking for their child's required school reading books usually leave their local library branch empty handed.
Avoiding all these service cuts and enhancing services could have been accomplished if recommendations by library advocates would have been heeded, and they almost were. The extraordinary grassroots Coalition to Save Our Libraries that brought together disparate groups of people from every corner of our community pulled off massive outreach, social media, and publicity efforts that delivered a resounding message to County Commissioners -- libraries matter.
The budget proposed by library advocates would have paid for innovative makerspaces; virtual information complexes; workforce expansion centers; path to citizenship outreach programs; early reader apps for tablets and mobile devices; the return of tutoring and other educational programs for children; teen centers at all regional libraries; renovations of children's rooms; more advanced technology classes for children and seniors; new books and e-resources; more senior center services through mobile library and outreach services; upgraded and increased technology options at public work stations in every branch; increased cultural and recreational programming at all branches; restored operating hours; and the preservation of a quality staff skilled in research, technology, educational curriculum, and programming operations.
Although the Commission vote came up short to make all this possible, much was achieved.
When we began, the Miami-Dade Library System faced a $30 million budget shortfall after four years of steep cutbacks and depleted reserves. By a vote of 9 to 4, County Commissioners preliminarily passed a tax rate on Sept. 4 that will generate enough money to fill that shortfall and then some. It marks a turnaround for our libraries with funding increases for new materials, programs, technology upgrades and expanded operating hours at some locations. It prevents further layoffs and provides a solid foundation to build upon.
You can't have a world class city with a decaying library system. Libraries are inextricably linked to education and quality of life factors that are central to the future economic growth of Miami-Dade County. Libraries are an engine of our prosperity because a healthy economy depends on a workforce that is literate and informed.
The final County Commission vote on the library budget is Sept. 18. and library advocates will not rest until the last Commissioner's vote is counted. Then we begin planning for next year, the future of our libraries, and our community.
Iconic American journalist Walter Cronkite once said, "Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation."
As our County and nation struggle to prosper in an increasingly complicated world, his wisdom is more valid today than ever.