Keep library doors open

Architecturally it could only have been described as Victorian Gothic, with its forbidding dark brickwork and high turrets. Yet the few words cut in stone across the top of the building -- ''Carnegie Free Public Library'' -- years back constituted a friendly summons to many young people in a Seattle neighborhood.

Inside could be found a world of adventure and ideas.

That library building still stands, but it has been converted to an office for businesses -- the same type of transformation that has overtaken scores of older public libraries throughout the United States. It is not that the libraries are gone. They are not, having been replaced in many communities in the past several decades with gleaming modern structures of steel and glass. All told, there are now between 8,000 to 9,000 public libraries in the US, along with 3,000 to 4,000 college and university libraries and 40,000 or so school libraries. And today's library is far removed from the old-fashioned branches of the 1920s, '30s and '40s. Thanks to electronic and computer hookups, many libraries provide a range of services that would have been unthinkable 25 or 30 years ago. Libraries, moreover, can now be found in almost all communities.

As librarians and book-enthusiasts pay tribute to libraries this National Library Week, it is especially fitting to recall how far libraries have come, and how important it is that they be appreciated, protected, and allowed to develop even more in the unique role they fill in society. Libraries, like most public institutions, have been hit hard by recession. Many have been forced to cut hours, reduce staffs, impose special user fees, and even sharply retrench services and purchases of new books.

Public libraries have also been caught up in an unfortunate political battle, as the Reagan administration, as an economy move, has sought to eliminate federal aid to libraries.

After failing to win the cutbacks it had requested last year in the fiscal year 1982 budget, the administration in early February impounded 28 percent of the funds that Congress had finally provided. That added up to $20 million out of a total federal library aid budget of $71.5 million. Congress appears unlikely to go along with the impoundment, and the $20 million is expected to be released later this week. Meantime, the administration is proposing that all federal aid for public libraries be eliminated in the fiscal year 1983 budget.

Patrons of libraries, or course, will not be discouraged or turned away from browsing through the stacks just because of sudden shifts in the prevailing political and economic climate.

Libraries will endure.

But, given their importance to education and intellectual enhancement, should they really be the target of excessive budget retrenchment?

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