Libraries have played a very significant part of my life. Some of my earliest memories are of going to our local library with my mom (much as I do now with Betty). There's a yellowed newspaper clipping someplace of my brother and me seated on the floor during a library storytime and another one of us, several years later, at a Summer Reading Club program. As a child, I established a library in my bedroom. I made up index cards for every book I owned and paper-clipped them to the first page of each book. If any of my friends wanted to borrow my books, no problem - just as long as they checked them out first, according to my elaborate system.
When I was 15, I applied for - and got - a job as a library "page." I shelved books, worked the circulation desk, emptied the book drop, and loved every minute of it for the many years that I worked there. As a high-school senior, I took part in a 4-week program hosted by a local news radio station that taught students the basics of broadcasting; for our "final project," we had to research and report on something happening in our community. Most kids reported on their school musicals or the football team losing the championship; my story was on the dilapidated condition of our township's library and how the township needed to get off their butts and make this a priority. I didn't win many friends with the commissioners, but I did win an award from the radio station and a $100 savings bond, which was way more cool than the approval of some stodgy old men.
And then, as a stay-at-home mom with two 10-month old twins who desperately needed a part-time job, the same library hired me back and I worked afternoons (while my mom watched the kids) and nights. Before we moved, I was briefly a member of the library's board.
I say all this because I don't think I'm alone in my love affair with the concept of the library. Most readers that I know have a strong affinity for their library. But in economically-stressed times like these, why does it seem as if libraries are always among the first places cut?
In Philadelphia, the city that birthed my love of libraries, Mayor Michael Nutter has been coming under fire lately for his plan to close 11 library branches. A judge has ordered them to remain open - for now. Nutter, realizing that this idea isn't sitting well with the public (several of whom have sued him), has said that the libraries would be "converted" into "learning centers."
Umm ... what the hell are they now?
The thing about closing the 11 Philadelphia libraries is this. If you know Philadelphia, you know that the neighborhoods affected by the closures are ones where libraries are more than a haven, they're a literal lifeline for the kids in those communities. These are communities where kids don't have books at home, much less wireless Internet access. And its admirable that the library director is taking the high road of presenting an understanding face in light of the cuts, and making sure that no patron affected by the closures will be more than two miles from an alternative "learning center" - I mean, library - but the living hell that a child probably needs to go through during those two miles is probably a scenario that not even the best author can conjure up.
And then there's the 12 library branches in my own county, a locale very different than that of urban Philadelphia. It was announced last week that our library system would be curtailing hours. Gone are Sundays, which just so happened to be one of the days that Betty and I would occasionally visit the library. Thursday evenings are cut, too. Certainly not as draconian as Philly, and sacrifices we can live with, but my greater concern is twofold. One: what's on the horizon ahead if these cuts and closures don't result in the anticipated budgetary savings? And two: it seems that libraries are always the ones that get short shrift, as if they're dispensable.
They're not. They need to be preserved, protected, and prioritized.
Ironically, one of the books that I read to the kids tonight was Our Library, by noted children's author Eve Bunting. It's about a library that needs to close because it needs a new roof and new paint. (Betty was aghast at such a notion.) No problem! The bookworm skunks, rabbits and foxes that patronize the library have the solution: they check out books on how to D.I.Y., and then they get to work. But, that's not the end of the library's problems. It takes a few bucks to run a library. No problem! The animals check out books on fundraising and host bake sales, art shows, and sell candy door-to-door. They raise enough money, but the owner of the land the library sits on has other ideas for its use. They check out a book on how to move a library ... and they do. After successfully surmounting other obstacles, the animals succeed in saving their library.
What a better world this would be if real life could take a page from children's fiction.