Sunday, December 1, 2013

For the Love of Libraries

A few weeks ago, there was a discussion in a city council meeting regarding the budget of the library for my hometown. The library was seeking a 5 percent increase in the library budget and a few members of the council as well as the mayor questioned the need for programs and certain materials available at the library.

I try to stay out of politics on this blog. I have another blog for that (Enright's Tavern). But this is an issue important to me because libraries are important to me and it seems that in these financially dicey times, the moment budget slashing is considered, the first glance is always cast in the direction of the local library: The heaviest utilized institution in a town. There are those who even consider them nonessential to a community, which is absolute rubbish. 

I will admit, libraries have changed since I was a kid. I remember the library in the town I grew up in was small and quiet (it actually started in the basement of a local hotel, then moved up to its own building nearby. Now, after getting the okay for a new building several years ago, it's quite large and beautiful). Neither of my parents finished high school, yet they both impressed upon their kids a love of reading. I didn't need much incentive. I fell in love with reading the moment I realized that I was actually understanding the words in the book I was reading (as opposed to pretending to sound out the words). My dad, an electrical contractor in the village, even served as a library trustee for a couple of decades. One of the stops of the library bookmobile was my street, outside the tavern that my grandfather built in the thirties (those were the days when not a thought was given to a library bookmobile standing outside a tavern). I used to put the horses out in the spot where the bookmobile would park and when they left, I raced my bike along on the sidewalk after them. When she got a chance to read, my mom could devour books (I envied her ability to read as fast as she did). She made sure we were regular visitors to the library. And from an early age I was drawn to the worlds and knowledge the library helped me tap into.

I learned the value of libraries. I've turned to them for researching my writing and for my reading pleasure. They are an incredible resource.

Times have changed. Libraries are still a wealth of knowledge, but they're so much more. Even in the digital age, libraries remain important for a variety of reasons: Educational, entertainment, socialization, heck even babysitting (having kids wait in a safe place after school until parents can pick them up). One part institution of learning, one part community center, they can be a focal point of a community, bringing citizens together, as the library where I've worked for 14 years did the day after Thanksgiving when the library stayed open three hours later (while City Hall and other city entities were closed all day) for a holiday open house. People came in for refreshments and holiday programs, and holiday songs were performed in the reference department. Even Santa stopped by for a storytime. It is a popular event every year and we can expect phone calls from the taxpayers beginning that morning asking what the line up is for that night. Years ago, when the library was closed for six weeks for an asbestos removal project, stores and restaurants in the area noted a significant drop in business during that time since patrons weren't visiting the library (and following up a morning at the library with a lunch at the bagel shop or some other establishment).

Our current mayor wasn't mayor during the time of the asbestos project, though it's doubtful that fact would have registered. Nor does it seem he's done any research on the library. The mayor has presented himself as a champion of the taxpayer and he's made himself blind to reality when it comes to the issue of the library and the taxpayer. I've never actually seen him in the library though I hear that when he was running for mayor years ago he was only too happy to stand outside, glad-handing the many people going in and out of the library. And he was scheduled to show at the holiday open house. So, while he understand the marketing potential of the library when it comes to self promotion, he seems to be a bit out of touch with the value of the library to the city. Consider this statement made in regards to the DVD and video game collection:

"'From a taxpayers standpoint, I don't understand why the taxpayers are paying the library to buy movies and video games for people to come in and take out for free.' He also suggested the Library Board may need to have a 'philosophical discussion' about the 'core function of your library.'"
(Source: Park Ridge Herald Advocate Nov. 21 "Park Ridge Library considering spending cuts next year")

His comment astonishes me because, aside from the taxpayers, I don't know who else he thinks is checking out the DVDs and video games. And they check them out in droves, especially before holidays when they need to entertain family or friends. Years ago, the library charged a $1 per movie fee. When that policy was stopped and the movies were free, circulation rose dramatically. It is the taxpayers popping those things on hold before they're even released. It is the taxpayers making requests to buy certain television shows. When the library decided to offer video games, it was greeted with enthusiasm by the taxpayers as parents could now save money by not buying the games that their children will use a year and then put aside.

I speak with some authority on this because I work in circulation and I'm the one checking these items out to the taxpayer

Again, the mayor might know this if he showed less disdain and more interest in the library. While patrons from other libraries are able to check the DVDs out (not the video games so far) it is indeed the people of the community, the people whose interests he claims to be watching out for who are benefitting from these and other items in the collection as they are with the programs run by the library. Those are the children of tax payers enjoying storytimes. Those are the taxpayers going to see movies or talks. Attending job seeking seminars and taking part in reading clubs.

And it was the taxpayers who voted the library #5 in a recent article on the ten best things about Park Ridge. The mayor insists that he's looking out for the taxpayers but the library is the one institution in town that gives the biggest bang for the taxpayer buck.

It is shameful for a mayor to look upon the local library, an institution vital to the health of a community, as if its some sort of fiscal black hole. Unfortunately, this is an attitude on the rise the past few years in communities across the country. As the economy began to tank in the early 2000s, library usage rose dramatically, not that you'd know by listening to leaders like the mayor of my hometown. The mayor is not alone in his cluelessness about the library and its functions. Indeed in the same article, in regards to cutting free programs, an alderman stated "that though free programs are 'nice [they} are not necessarily the core function of what a library should be.'"

Of course this alderman couldn't be more incorrect. The core function of a library is to enlighten, whether that enlightenment comes from books or programs all accessible and highly enjoyed by the taxpayers. Perhaps it isn't the library but rather people like this alderman and the mayor who need to consider the core function of a library.

I cannot understand the attitude of people like the mayor that portrays libraries as practically pointless to a community but I will be only too happy to correct that wrong-headed notion whenever I come across it. 

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