Books and people

Some American public libraries are doing well now despite the financial problems of the communities in which they're located. A dramatic example is New York City, where farsighted leadership has turned around a once-deteriorating library system.

Yet many other libraries face near-desperate conditions, as their expenses and use climb while their income stays the same - or declines. Detroit may have to close 14 of its 24 branch libraries at year's end unless a private effort can raise $1 million to meet the library deficit.

Ironically, the public need for library services is always greater during recessions than during robust prosperity. More people spend time in libraries, more books circulate when times are bad. The unemployed seek to learn about new careers and jobs.

Libraries now are being asked to have expensive computers and other electronic gear, since today's society stores so much information electronically.

Whether a city's library system is doing well depends on many factors. One important element is the library's leadership. No longer is it sufficient for librarians to be specialists in books. They also must be strong leaders and astute politicians, able to compete for scarce funds with police, fire, and public-works departments.

Or they must be able to reach out to the surrounding community, meeting its needs for information while gaining its support. This backing may result in pressure on city government to increase library funds. Or it may produce substantial income from the voluntary friends-of-the-library organizations, who have made a material difference in many cases.

Numerous successful librarians are imaginative, and have learned the art of grantsmanship. In recent years the head librarian of Lawrence, Mass. - an impoverished city - gained the funds needed for new equipment and important library services by obtaining a string of small grants.

Librarians have become adroit cost cutters. But all should consider whether to continue rental art collections and movies, as some do, or put funds into books.

Future librarians will have to combine all these abilities. And - they still will need to know about books.

It is a far cry from what most expected when they were studying library science. But they're adapting.

Libraries are sanctuaries for the American idea of self-help an' individual achievement. Americans, including those who hold the purse strings, need to realize that the pursuit of knowledge and the librarids that hold so much of it are essent) l to a free society. Libraries deserve everyone's support - and adequate money. To shortchange them is to shortchange ourselves.

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