That’s the question posed to me after I shared a post about the impending closing of Philadelphia’s public library system. I assume the thought behind the inquiry was that no one really uses libraries anymore so what’s the big deal? I say that public libraries are still a big deal to many people and I am one of them.
When is the last time you used the services of a public library? Was it back when you were still trying to understand the Dewey Decimal System and the card catalog? For me, I’d say about three weeks ago. I meant to go yesterday but had a bunch of errands to run and didn’t make it. I have a library card for every city I’ve ever lived in. Poughkeepsie, Brooklyn, Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Philadelphia. I still have the cards! I use public libraries for a quiet place to get away, a place to use the printer or wireless internet access. I *gasp* check out books and have been known in the past to check out movies as well. When I was a kid, I loved to go to the library and look at the microfiche from years past. In fact, I went into a local branch of TD Banknorth two days ago which used to be called the Poughkeepsie Savings Bank. It’s an old building and must have been a bank back when folks drove down Market Street with a horse and buggy. There were framed pictures of the city back then – black and white scenes capturing daily life of a time long gone by. While I was waiting to see the next teller I thought to myself, “I should go by the library and look up some more of these photos.” See, I’m the kind of person who likes to do that stuff every now and again. When I’m struck with the desire to borrow a book, flip through microfiche, or just have some peace I’m glad I can go to a local library branch and do so.
I get the other side though, I do. You can rent movies through Netflix and RedBox or you can watch them on your computer. You can read books online or get a Kindle and carry ebooks wherever you go. Many Americans have internet access at home or at work. Starbucks and Barnes & Noble provide big cushy chairs you can lounge in all day. What use do public libraries serve in 2009? As a person who has access to all of those things but still uses the library on occasion, I feel that attitude is pretty elitist and doesn’t consider the numerous people who don’t have access.
The Free Libraries in Philadelphia are in every one of our neighborhoods and provide essential services in these communities. Use of Library resources has increased dramatically this year as job seekers come to use the Library’s free public computers to do job searches, children seek homework help in a safe environment after school (most Philadelphia public schools have no libraries!), and seniors come to access information about social security and other federal benefits–information now found only online. Almost half of Philadelphians are without internet access at home. – letter from library advocates to legislators.
Beyond that, libraries often serve as cultural bedrocks in their communities, offering classes, trainings, activities, meeting space and programming geared toward young people. Just because YOU do not take advantage of the local offerings doesn’t mean they’re not valuable or important to someone else.
To be fair, it must be a hard job trying to balance a budget. Cuts are being made from the highest offices of government to the smallest towns. It’s not just libraries that are in danger if governments can’t get their budgets together. If Pennsylvania doesn’t pass two bills (SHB 1828, SB 1058) authorizing Philly to defer a portion of its pension payments and temporarily increase the local sales tax by 1%,
the City will be required to cut $700 million in spending from its five year plan to meet state-mandated financial requirements. Cutting $700 million from the city budget will require drastic and wide-reaching service cuts, including laying off hundreds of police officers and firefighters, closing all libraries and recreation centers, closing two City health centers, and eliminating almost 3,000 positions.
Something’s gotta give especially when publicly-funded programs like education and emergency services are strapped to the point of near incapacitation. I don’t want to sacrifice ambulances and firehouses for a few library branches but that doesn’t mean throw in the towel and close the free library system altogether!
Perhaps if we paid more attention to what libraries offer we would see their value and come together as a community to keep them open. If we’ve learned anything in this recession it should be that the government cannot and will not carry us. Individually we’ve had to lean on each other much more in recent times. I think communities are going to have to start leaning on its residents as well. Perhaps instead of having many small branches throughout the city, a compromise could be to limit public hours to one or two centralized branches and use the others as archives and storage. I don’t know the answer folks, it’s just that something about closing free, public libraries leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It’s up there with the erasure of art and music programs in public schools or the closing of after school programs in urban communities. I live a large part of my life plugged in and online but I’m loathe to think that we’re abandoning all of our brick and mortar institutions for keystrokes and megabytes.
If you live in Pennsylvania and want to contact your representatives go here.