A DARKENED library ranks as one of the most sobering sights in any community. What good are the words "free" and "public" chiseled in stone above the library door if the door itself remains locked?
Yet locked doors and "Closed" signs confront more and more book lovers across the country as public libraries, those essential repositories of information, face cutbacks in public funding. Many facilities have had to shorten hours, freeze the acquisition of new books, lay off staff, and cancel special services such as bookmobiles, story hours, and adult literacy classes. Some have had to close permanently. Librarians note that the current situation may be worse than during the Depression, when no librari es are known to have closed.
As one way of calling attention to the challenges facing the nation's libraries, the American Library Association is sponsoring a month-long "Call for America's Libraries" campaign, which ends April 11. By phoning a toll-free number, 800-530-8888, individuals can register their support for libraries and librarians. In return, they will receive a brochure on ways to support their local libraries.
Names of callers - 25,000 so far - will be given to congressional leaders April 7. As Patricia Glass Schuman, president of the American Library Association, explains, "We must tell our nation's legislators that we want our libraries fully supported."
That is easier said than done when cash-strapped communities must make hard choices about which programs to fund. But as librarians point out, budget cuts, censorship, illiteracy, and restricted access to public information pose potential threats to Americans' intellectual freedom. They note that people cannot exercise their right to know if their library is closed, if they don't know how to read, or if someone else is telling them what they can or cannot read.
Next week is National Library Week, an annual reminder that free public libraries are not quite free. If there is an extra urgency behind this year's event, it may stem from the recognition that public libraries, second only to public schools, are the core institution to save literate Americans from becoming an endangered species.