Help for US libraries: overdue?
Like a candle that gives off light, only to consume itself, America's great municipal libraries are in danger of flickering and guttering into cold relics in the next several years.Skip to next paragraph
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This gloomy assessment from Vartan Gregorian, newly appointed president of the New York Public Library, is shared by library administrators across the nation.
Unless massive infusions of public and private funds are forthcoming in the next few years to replenish dwindling financial resources, these administrators conclude that the bellwether libraries of the nation's major industrial centers, and those in many other cities, face unpalatable choices that could change the nature of these institutions as they have been known for decades.
One of the more controversial proposals -- generally made by city administrators and politicians and fiercely resisted by professional librarians -- is that libraries begin to charge for their services.
"Philosophically, I believe the commitment we have is to provide free services," says Shirley Mills-Fischer, a staunch American Libraries Association advocate of free services, "but realistically, will we have the resources to do it?"
The question is a very real one for library administrators.
Victims of reduced public funding for the past seven to 10 years, libraries in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, San francisco, and most other major US cities have been ravaged by the effects of inflation, municipal neglect, and the highly perishable nature of their resources.
Now, the loss of CETA-supported staff and the proposed end of National Endowment for the Humanities money, added to individual states' tax-slashing measures, such as California's Proposition 13, are threatening these institutions as never before:
* Under the pressure of Massachusetts' Proposition 2 1/2, the Boston Public Library faces the possible closing of all 25 of its branch libraries, at worst, and continued erosion of its already depleted financial resources, at best.
* New York's branch libraries have so deteriorated that, if one-third were closed tomorrow, the resulting savings would not bring the rest up to minimum standards. "There is not enough left in them," one library official says sadly.
* In Chicago, community groups have protested the deterioration or library buildings into community eyesores. Meanwhile, local library administrators are more concerned with the less visible but more damaging effects of the loss of 800 employees, one-third of the staff, in two years.
* San Francisco, like most of California's library systems, has been devastated by Proposition 13.The library's director, John Frantz, predicts that "unless something is done, these budget cuts will destroy public libraries in San Francisco. We can only tolerate these cuts for two years, then everything is gone."
In the face of such emergencies, library administrators have become much more astute politicians, vying with other municipal departments for dwindling resources. They have turned to a variety of administrative and funding techniques, including automation, hiring fund-raising specialists, and building armies of volunteers.