The Salinas, California public library, home to the archives of Nobel Prize winning writer and resident John Steinbeck, will close its doors at the end of 2005, unless private donors soon contribute $3.2 million to replace funds taken by state government from city revenues.
To forestall closing the three branches, all city employees sacrificed up to 3% of their salaries for the next 2 years, and city administrators took 5% pay cuts. Effective after school was out in June 2005 for the summer, the library is open merely 8 hours a week.
Children Losing their Library
In Salinas, a middle class community with a sizable poverty-level population of farm workers and immigrants, children use the library regularly for its after-school homework assistance, internet access and as a place to spread out their books and study. Closure of the city libraries means that children will lose these invaluable services.
Salinas is not alone.
Over the past few years, our worsening economy and Bush Administration budget cuts have caused massive waves of cutbacks at libraries nationwide.
Public libraries from Seattle, Denver and Honolulu to cities in California, Ohio, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Michigan and beyond, have suffered branch closures, staff terminations and curtailment of services and hours due to federal and state budget decisions.
Travesty to Democracy
The closure and severe limitation of public libraries is a travesty to a democratic society. And it's often a death knell of democracy.
Not everyone can simply buy books, newspapers and magazines at will. Not everyone has internet access in their home or even school. And every child does not have a home in which to read and study.
Public library use is free of charge. It's not limited by race or religion, income, age, disability or education. At the local library, all people are welcome to learn, to ask, to discover about themselves and others, about the world, about their God.
Public Libraries Are Literacy Centers
Public libraries are vital literacy centers where, without shame, both adults and children can learn how to read. Libraries provide a place for equal opportunity to access information. They are also essential sources of citizenship information and education.
Free and ready access to trained library staff, creative services and programs, flexible hours and well-chosen book collections are essential to meet the needs of all children and the greater community, regardless of income, race or religion.
"... libraries are an essential public good and are fundamental institutions in democratic societies... intellectual freedom is a basic democratic privilege, and the ALA defends the right of library users to read, seek information and speak freely, as guaranteed by the First Amendment" states the American Library Association (ALA).
Katherine Hadley, Director of the Minneapolis Public Library summed it up when she wrote:
"Since last fall, when the Library Board faced drastic budget reductions for 2004, hundreds of people in Minneapolis and beyond have written to us about how important the Minneapolis Public Library is to their family, their business, their classroomp] The majority of our neighborhood libraries are now open just three or four days a week. This is not acceptable in a city that prides itself on literacy and the right of all residents to fully participate in civic life."
Taking Public Libraries for Granted
Modern-day Americans take their public libraries for granted. Widespread free public libraries, rich in volumes and trained staff, are a relatively new American development, especially for children.
It wasn't until the 20th century that free public libraries that included children became commonplace in the US. Prior to that, libraries charged hefty prices affordable only by the wealthy, and use was commonly restricted to men and boys over 12 years old.
It's no secret that American public schools today are in fiscal crisis. As school districts make difficult budget choices, school library budgets and staff are commonly reduced, frozen or eliminated altogether. Families have come to rely even more on public libraries to provide materials to educate, enchant and encourage children to learn about the world.
According to a 2004 ALA study, libraries in 41 states have absorbed more than $50 million n funding cuts just over the past year.
The public library plays an essential role in allowing all people to pursue the American Dream. Equal access to information is a basic right in a democratic society. And providing each child with the ability to read, a place to do homework and access to learning about his or her world is both a responsibility and source of pride in the US.
We are called, as citizens of a free and fair democracy, to recommit ourselves to support public libraries, and to make public libraries a budgetary priority at the state and federal level.
To do less is to foolishly undermine the future of our country. .