Symbolic Ways To Burn A Book

BOOK-LOVERS in suburban Needham, Mass., have special reason to celebrate National Library Week this year: Our library has just been saved from near-extinction. In a special election last week, three-quarters of the voters approved a property-tax increase that will add nearly $500,000 to the library's budget. It allocates $76,000 for new books and will allow the building to remain open six days a week. The victory follows nearly a year of crisis, when library hours were reduced to 26 a week, book budgets were cut in half, and staffing was severely reduced. Without additional funds, librarians warned, the library would soon be closed all but 10 hours a week and its staff cut to four. There would be no new books, no children's librarians, no reference help for students, and virtually no services beyond checking out books.

For weeks prior to the election, supporters circulated flyers showing a photo of the library doors chained and padlocked. A chilling headline read: "It's not hard to keep the library quiet these days." Supporters also stood outside the red brick building carrying placards that read: "Save the Library. Vote 'Yes' Question 2."

Save the Library. That urgent plea is echoing across the country this spring as cash-strapped cities struggle with hard choices: which essential services to fund, which to cut. Too often, no-new-taxes translates into no-new-books.

In neighboring Newton, Mass., officials may close eight of the city's 12 libraries within the next 18 months, including a much-loved children's library. In Montgomery County, Md., budget cuts could shorten library hours. In New York City, the library system threatens to collapse. In Brooklyn, N.Y., demonstrators draped black cloth over library doors to protest cutbacks, and schoolchildren - the primary users of that city's libraries - locked the doors with a symbolic chain of paper.

It is children, in fact, who stand to lose the most in these cutbacks. For many adults, a lifetime love of reading and learning was first nurtured in the libraries of their childhood. Details of those buildings, however simple or grand, remain indelibly etched in memory: the smell of books and glue, the exact arrangement of tables and chairs, the pattern of tiles on the floor, the gently imposing presence of the librarian.

But what happens to the long-term reading habits of a new generation of children who climb the library steps only to discover that story hour has been canceled, or the children's librarian has been fired, or - worst of all - the building is dark and a sign on the door says "Closed"?

Two New York City librarians have pointed out that even during the Depression the library on Fifth Avenue remained open 365 days a year. Branch libraries were open six days and four nights a week. If that kind of commitment to books was possible in those dark years of the 1930s, surely there are no excuses for the '90s.

Perhaps never has there been a more urgent need to set aside a special week to honor libraries - to value these institutions as jewels in the crown of a city's services.

In his science-fiction fantasy "Fahrenheit 451," Ray Bradbury describes a totalitarian state in which books were outlawed and burned. Firemen, he writes, watched with pleasure "while the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning."

Yet as Mr. Bradbury cautions in an afterword, "There is more than one way to burn a book." Padlocks on library doors hardly rank as the equivalent of kerosene and matches, but the effect is the same: denying access to the printed page. And to what else? Beyond their specific, enriching contents, library books add up to something rather majestic: a public sharing of information, wisdom, and entertainment "free to all," as the words engraved above the door to the Needham library read.

Besides that other free public institution - schools - is there anything else that so epitomizes the democratic commitment to education for all? If concerned citizens can "Save the whales," and "Save the rain forest," they can "Save the library" where their children can learn about whales and rain forests and the irreplaceable value of books.

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