I wrote this piece as a letter to the editor a few years ago when public libraries were on the state budget chopping block in Ohio (now reprising it, with a few modifications). Thankfully, the cuts didn’t turn out to be as drastic as feared, but there were cuts. This most democratic of institutions can be a lifeline for so many, especially in these scary economic times. But the closing or sale of public libraries is always a possibility. In 2004, the John Steinbeck Public Library in Salinas Valley, California, setting for many of Steinbeck’s novels, was seriously threatened. A read-in covered by national news outlets brought hordes of citizens, as well as authors, to the library to raise awareness about the impending closure, and this publicity, along with private funding, saved the collections.
The last-minute rescue of that ironically named and situated public library was not the last skirmish in the battle to save public libraries and services. A corporation called Library Systems and Services has taken over many failing public library systems, and is now the nation’s fifth largest library system. An entity that has as its bottom line “The Bottom Line” has its own and its shareholders best interests at heart, not yours. But given a choice between an outsourced, privatized library, or no library at all, which would you choose? A Hobson’s choice indeed.
I am a huge fan of public libraries. It was a momentous occasion when I proudly acquired my first borrower’s card, at the age of six, in my hometown library on Long Island. Since then, I have moved quite a few times, and the first thing I’ve always done in my new community has been to get a library card. I’ve explored the stacks and pored over books in locations ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous – from the grand elegance of the Main Reading Room in the New York Public Library to a miniscule, converted stone jailhouse with iron-barred windows in a Colorado mountain town. And now, here, our homey Yellow Springs branch of the Greene County Public Library, where I can hang out comfortably, greet my neighbors, and chat with amiable librarians who know what I like and often recommend some good reads.
I’m also a bargain-hunter — and I can think of no better bargain than membership in the local public library system. According to statistics in Greene County, the average patron borrows about 38 items from the library each year. At an average cost of $15 per item, a family of four can save $2350 a year by having a library membership.
Perhaps my family members are more voracious readers than most (and living right down the block from the library helps!), but between books, magazines, CDs, DVDs, audio and videotapes, my family probably borrows over 500 items a year – that’s at least $7500 we save every year by using the library instead of having to buy or rent! And that doesn’t take into account additional benefits offered by the library, such as reference services, public speakers and instructional workshops, programs for children and teens, and free internet access. The library is also a safe and popular gathering place for upper elementary and middle school kids, and provides free meeting space for a variety of community groups.
Our county library system is extremely user-friendly. Besides being able to consult with a helpful and friendly staff at the library itself, we can also choose to scan the catalog, renew or request a book or video (even from a library outside our own county, state or country!), by connecting with the system from our home computers. What could be more convenient?
If you are book-lovers like me and my family, and you appreciate the benefits of having an excellent public library system, please join me in supporting the library and heading off the devastating effects of such drastic budget cuts by contacting your state representatives, supporting your local library association, and checking out the American Library Association’s Campaign for America’s Libraries. Keep America Reading!