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.
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.
But these steps are described by library administrators as purely stopgap measures, which have not eased the most fundamental pressures on the nation's libraries.
A more substantial device, being tried in California and elsewhere, is the floating of a "dedicated tax," specifically earmarked for libraries. Such a tax supports Cleveland's library system, one of the country's best.
But special taxes are difficult to pass in budget-cut conscious cities. Meanwhile, librarians argue that state governments ought to step in and fill the role once held by the municipalities. Most cities have found state governments reluctant to provide significant funding.
Hence, the increasing pressure to charge for library services.
In San Diego, an effort by a city councilmen to persuade local officials to levy a $10-a-year charge for library cards was defeated when the state attorney general determined that such a fee would be illegal. Local library officials maintain that there was never a serious threat of charges in that city.
But in New york, outgoing library president Richard Couper spoke bitterly of mounting pressure from within and without that system to charge for services.
The threat of library charges is perhaps the most controversial element in a storm of debate over the future of these traditionally free institutions, which have always been considered as permanent and unrestricted as neighborhood parks.
The outcome of this debate, library administrators argue, has far-reaching implications for the future of scholarship in this country, as the gap between rich and poor in America increasingly becomes a gap between those who have access to information and those who do not.
"There are all kinds of stories in New York and elsewhere," observes St. Louis Public Library director Joan Collett, "of people who got their education in public libraries. These people were generally the have-nots. Kids who need a place to study turn to the library for a quiet space."
Most librarians vow that this quiet space is never going to become available only to those who can pay the price of admission. But they do acknowledge that massive financial pressures on libraries are quietly changing the nature of these institutions.
The public library of Philadelphia -- which has seen severe cuts in staff (22 percent), hours (17 percent), book funds, and the elimination of its bookmobile service -- has just completed a study which calls for rethinking and reshaping its role.
Among other things, the study proposes elimination of basic study materials for students in school, as well as abandoning "light diversional material for leisure-time reading, and adult nonfiction and fiction collections in branches."
One librarian, who praised this study, predicted that such steps might be politically difficult to implement. But he and other administrators feel that almost anything -- short of closing or charging -- is worth a try.
If things continue the way they have been going, these librarians say, the nation's great libraries will become gutted mausoleums with little else to offer a rising generation than collections of decaying book s.