Libraries are an essential service, too

The Lancaster County Library traces its roots back to 1759, when 54 local residents anted up three guineas each and began buying books. Ben Franklin himself marveled at their initiative, and among the first directors was George Ross, who later would sign the Declaration of Independence.

For nearly 250 years this library and its antecedents have afforded patrons, regardless of economic circumstance, a mind-boggling collection of materials representing 50 centuries of human thought. Plato and Santayana, Shakespeare and Hemingway, Bacon and Darwin stand shoulder to shoulder on its shelves. The library is also a place to learn English, look for a job, read to children, do a term paper, or simply to oil a squeaky day.

But this tradition has been shrinking steadily in recent years. Needed building maintenance has been put off, reserve funds have been tapped, and, worst of all, book purchases have been canceled. Even this hasn't been enough to steer clear of the fiscal shoals; as of last month, the library and its three branches are open 60 fewer hours every week. In addition, 22 part-time positions were eliminated.

Much the same is happening all over the US. The public library - an American institution older than the flag, envy of other nations, cradle of literacy, bootstrap for generations of immigrants, storehouse of fuel for the imagination, hotbed of adventure and romance, and one of the greatest democratic institutions ever created - is struggling to survive. This is nothing less than a national calamity.

There are about 9,000 public libraries in the United States, and counting their branches there are some 16,000 places that an American can borrow a book without charge. By every available measure, public libraries are enjoying record levels of popularity, regularly serving from a third to a half of the population and each year lending out more than a billion books, periodicals, and other materials.

Despite their reputation for stuffiness, libraries are action-oriented. Almost from the beginning, libraries were a kind of all-encompassing social-service agency, and today they are meccas for the unemployed, the undereducated, and the newly immigrated. Libraries are used by doctoral candidates and high school dropouts. Businessmen come for seminars on good management, teenagers come for information on AIDS, and "latchkey" children come after school lets out.

Although most librarians say the word "fee" as though it soils their lips, we are already in the era of the not-quite-so-free public library. Fees for video rentals, photocopying, and book reserves are a source of income for many libraries, and more and more of them are charging for online database searching. But these cover a small fraction of overall expenses, and fiscal anemia is taking its toll in the form of shortened hours, reduced staff, curtailed book-buying, canceled magazine subscriptions, delayed major renovations and repairs, long lines at check-outs and computer terminals, bookmobiles parked indefinitely, and telephone queries deferred by answering machines. And, increasingly, shuttered libraries.

Libraries are an afterthought for government budgetmakers. They are the first to suffer cuts, chiefly because they seldom fight back like public employee unions.

At the root of the problem is a kind of indifference bordering on neglect on the part of library patrons, and a kind of neglect bordering on negligence on the part of public officials. There is hardly anyone who is against libraries. Rather, library budgets are being cut or restrained almost by default to fund other, more tangible services. No one's life is in danger because they can't get their hands on one of Shakespeare's plays, and so libraries are often undervalued by local officials bent on preserving "essential services."

But in fact, libraries are essential. Reading is still the most basic survival skill in today's information-driven society. Moreover, the gap between rich and poor is widening, and the libraries level the playing field.

A danger greater than closing is that if we keep pauperizing libraries, they will deteriorate to the point that it will not be worth going at all. For children from homes where the only book is the telephone directory, the library is their one great hope. But if they go and find nothing to read, they will soon be watching television instead.

The best way to build community political support is with tax revenues and borrowing plans specifically linked to libraries. But the ultimate responsibility lies with those who use and love libraries to lend personal support and to pressure elected representatives to provide adequate money for them.

If anything, we ought to be increasing library hours and services. This is no time to be locking up the books. What in the name of Ben Franklin is going on here?

William Ecenbarger is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.

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