Some friends in a community not too far from mine told me the story of a candidate for local political office a couple of years ago who said, at a candidate forum, “I think people who use the library ought to pay for it. I never go in there.” This candidate got elected, along with some others of like mind, and sure enough, when it came time to pass a budget, library money was drastically slashed.
The impact was immediate and drastic. The library had to lay off workers and cut operating hours. When folks who needed the library’s resources showed up, they often found the doors closed, or no staff member available to help and answer questions.
Looking for a job to support your family? Good luck being able to use a library computer to look up online job listings. A student working on a term paper that requires current reference material? Good luck getting access in the evening or on a weekend. Looking for that new book by your favorite author? Sorry, the library doesn’t have money to buy it.
The impression I got from my friends is that the frustration level is high, and that a grassroots effort is underway to get library funds restored. I hope they’re successful. Like me, they share the view that a library is an essential community service, just like police and fire protection, the health department, road maintenance, garbage pickup, etc. I think of a library as a vital part of the school system, which in its broadest term includes adults as well as young folks.
I would not be a writer if it were not for the influence of the library in my hometown as I was growing up. It was a modest operation, a single room tucked between the fire station and the city clerk’s office, staffed by a dear woman named Miss Glennie. She was not a trained librarian in the modern sense, but she knew every book in the place, and she was an ardent advocate of reading. She challenged me by pushing good literature on me, had me reading Faulkner and Hemingway when I was in junior high. Those books not only entertained me, they taught me what good writing looked like. Those books, and Miss Glennie, helped shape the writer I would become.
Libraries have changed a lot since my youth, when they were mostly places where you put books on shelves and patrons came in and checked them out. They’re now firmly in the grasp of the digital age, and much of what they hold is accessed through a keyboard, a collection of knowledge -- much of it sight and sound -- that has to be updated at lightning speed. But in the broadest sense, the role of the library hasn’t changed. It’s a repository of the community’s wisdom, there for every soul in the community to use.
No community service exists unless the people in the community insist on it, work for it, and support decision-makers who share their views. I don’t think we’re inclined to let crime run unchecked, houses burn down, garbage pile up at the curb, or ceilings fall in at the schoolhouse. The question is, do we also think knowledge and wisdom are important? If we do, we’ll back our libraries to the hilt.