Save the libraries - a nation's great equalizers

What would America be without its public libraries? We may get a chance to find out because libraries are facing unprecedented economic challenges. Budget cuts have weakened or closed libraries in more than 40 states in the past year.

Some examples:

• The Los Angeles County Public Library will need to close 16 libraries and reduce hours if the proposed state budget is passed.

• Binghamton, N.Y., has permanently shut all of its branch libraries, leaving only its main library open.

• Seattle's system just reopened after its third one-week closure in a year and a half.

• The public libraries in San Bernardino, Calif., were unable to buy new books for most of the 2003 fiscal year.

• Denver has cut 50 jobs and closes all 22 of its libraries one day a week.

• Hawaii's libraries lost 10 percent of their operating hours.

• Proposed budget cuts for New York City's three public library systems will mean a cumulative $50 million cut over several years.

Yet despite all of this, more people are using public libraries than ever, and the bleak outlook means much more to them than just not being able to check out the latest John Grisham novel.

As in other times of economic uncertainty, more Americans are depending on the libraries' free resources. Beyond books, periodicals, CDs, tapes, and videos, libraries provide free Internet and e-mail service, which are valuable resources for people looking for college loans, jobs, vital medical knowledge, or small-business opportunities.

With big budget cuts, however, fewer of us find these services readily available when we need them, especially Internet resources found on libraries' shrinking computer facilities.

The Gates Foundation reported recently that 39.8 percent of African-Americans and 31.6 percent of Hispanics use the Internet, substantially below the 60 percent usage among whites. Families with incomes under $25,000 report much lower Internet use (around 30 percent) than those at higher income levels (over 70 percent). And adults over 50 are less likely to use the Internet (37 percent) than all other age groups, although the percentage is rising as the computer-savvy population ages.

The social cost of this digital divide is immense. Our growing use of information technology, and our dependence upon it, have helped create two Americas - one with computer know-how and the skills to advance, and the other without either know how or the potential to get it, people who are falling further behind because of their race, income, education, and neighborhood.

America's libraries, with their history of empowering and educating people of all backgrounds, have always been bridges across the information gap. Years of government and private funding helped make computers available in nearly all public libraries, serving 10 percent of all Internet users. For many disadvantaged people, library computers are their sole Internet portal. This is even truer for children in rural and underserved communities, because nearly 80 percent of all library systems serve rural areas and small towns. Computer skills and Internet access are essential for full economic and social participation. Yet cuts threaten gains made in narrowing the digital divide.

Library cuts aren't politically popular. A 2003 survey by Marist College Institute for Public Opinion found that 63 percent of Americans would pay higher taxes for public library services. It's no longer enough merely to say we love libraries. Local and state elected officials need to hear from us about just how much we need these services, and to know we want to sustain libraries.

The tools we need to grow are now at our library, but we must act swiftly to make sure they'll be there tomorrow.

Carla Hayden, executive director of Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Library, is president of the American Library Association.

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