A good public librarian — and the library that comes with him — is more valuable than an Ivy League education. I can say that with authority because I am fortunate enough to have both. Friday, a Saint Louis County reference librarian accomplished a research task that had not only foiled me, but also a representative from The New York Times and a researcher for the information clearinghouse ProQuest. And he did it in fewer than 10 minutes. (You can read more about the details in this aside.)
Like so many other readers and writers, I’ve spent countless hours at my various local libraries over the years. So much time, in fact, that I still remember my three-digit library card number from my tiny hometown library in Arkansas (114). There, I moved from Trixie Belden mysteries to classics including everything from Jane Eyre to The World According to Garp.
I imagine it’s exactly the sort of evolution Andrew Carnegie envisioned when donated more than $40 million between 1886 and 1919 to pay for 1,679 new library buildings across America. Or maybe he pictured writers like Alfred Kazin, who used materials in the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue to inspire his first book, On Native Grounds, published in 1942.
Sixty years later, that same venerable building hosted a celebration of what would have been the Dr. Seuss’s 108th birthday as well as the National Education Association’s Read Across America Day. While the NEA commemorated the date Friday with actors Danny DeVito and Zac Efron actors reading The Lorax to 300 public school elementary students, Mayor Michael Bloomberg put the city’s libraries in a completely different sort of spotlight just weeks before.
In February, the mayor unveiled a preliminary fiscal 2012-13 budget that aims to slash library budgets by nearly $100 million year-over-year, according to forecasts from the city’s Office of Management and Budget.
Bloomberg is certainly not the only public official to propose such cuts. A 2010 survey by Library Journal found that 72 percent of libraries polled faced budget cuts in the previous year, while 43 percent said they had made cuts to staffing. Although LJ‘s 2011 survey found budget cuts may be beginning to stabilize, it also reported that libraries reduced their weekly operating hours from 59.8 in 2010 to 49 hours in 2011 and slashed an average of 2.7 full-time positions from their staffs.
These days, that doesn’t just mean less time to check out the latest best seller. Libraries offer a wide range of programs and services as well as the only free internet access offered in many neighborhoods. For example, in addition to traditional story times and adult book club events scheduled this month, my local branch is offering technology classes, craft days, tax assistance for older patrons, and a “Hunger Games Tribute Challenge” for teens among many other events. Unscheduled activities recently included a group of developmentally disabled adults and their teachers using computers with internet access and practicing fine-motor skills with the old-fashioned card catalog or a librarian helping an elderly man sign up for an email account, his first.
Odds are that anyone reading — or writing — a blog owns a computer that they use to check multiple email addresses. But several recent surveys by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Projects found that only 40 percent of people with household incomes of less than $30,000 a year have broadband internet access at home compared with 87 percent of households earning $75,000 or more. For many of those lower-income households, public libraries represent the only oasis in a digital desert. Indeed, public libraries offer the only completely free internet access in 71 percent of their communities, according to the American Library Association.
So if their local library is closed or understaffed, where will all those school kids doing research, job seekers filing online applications and foiled freelance writers go when they need internet access or assistance tracking down a hard-to-find nugget of information? Guess they better start saving for the Ivy League education — although it isn’t quite as useful as a good librarian.