Friday, April 6, 2012

Standing Up for the Library

When I was researching Bull's-Eye, my biography of Annie Oakley, I took a trip to Greenville, Ohio, Annie's hometown. It's a sleepy place, about an hour from Dayton, and the main street doesn't look all that different than it did when Annie died there in 1926. Arguably the most imposing building in town was the Greenville Public Library, constructed of Bedford stone and buff-pressed brick with financial help from Andrew Carnegie back in 1903.

Greenville’s library is everything a building that houses a community’s past and nourishes its present and future should be: sturdy, inviting, and a bit regal. I spent many hours there poring over files about Annie and checking my e-mail; this was in 2000, and my motel didn’t have Internet access. More than any other spot I visited in Greenville, the library made me feel connected to Annie and the town.

I’ve been thinking about the Greenville Public Library a lot lately, because the library in my own town, Englewood, New Jersey, has been facing budget cuts that threaten to do serious damage to this vital institution. Our city manager’s original budget called for a 23 percent reduction in the library’s funding, which amounted to over $516,000. Thanks to a large presence of library supporters at every budget meeting, the city council revised the reduction to just over $268,000, or 12 percent. On Wednesday, after a rally on the steps of City Hall, the council gave back $75,000, all but finalizing the cuts at $193,000. Plus the mayor has pledged to donate his $5,000 annual salary to the library this year. (An annual salary of $5,000? Finally, a job that pays less than writing books!)

I attended some of the budget meetings, as well as Wednesday’s rally, which might have been my first mass political gathering since New York’s No Nukes demonstration in 1982. Well, "mass" is a relative term. No Nukes had more than a million people. We had significantly fewer. But as I listened to various people speak about the importance of the library to our community, I flashed back to my days in Greenville. Because in my diverse city, with very wealthy New York City commuters and families of more modest means, the library is once again the place where I feel most connected to my neighbors. In our city of 27,147, the library saw more than 200,000 patron visits last year and offered more than 240 public events. Every month the library schedule lists a rich variety of programs for adults and kids: movies, talks, workshops, technology tutorials, story hours, playgroups. In recent months, I went to a journal-writing workshop given by my former Scholastic colleague, Alexandra Hanson-Harding, and gave my own talk on Wheels of Change.

After my sector of the city lost power in the Nor’easter of March 2010, I headed to the library with my laptop and my research folders to work on a chapter of the aforementioned Wheels. The building was packed, but the librarians were patient and welcoming, plugging power strips into every outlet so the maximum number of people could get online. The same thing happened after the freak Halloween weekend snowstorm of 2011. If anyone needed proof that the library was the heart of our community, that was it.

There’s no denying that our town, like those all across the United States, is struggling in this harsh economic climate, and that the very form and function of the library is evolving as digital devices proliferate. But as author Barbara Kingsolver once wrote (in her book, Animal Dreams), “Libraries are the one American institution you shouldn't rip off.” Our library needs funding not just to remain open, but to remain vibrant. After all, there is no better measure of a community's vitality than its library.


Unknown said...

Thanks, Sue. Englewood is not alone. My local library in Greenburgh, NY--the second busiest in Westchester County, has no money to purchase new materials. I mean zip, nada, nothing. They've put signs all over the building announcing this problem.I think that the town has used the library's funding as a piggy bank.

Anonymous said...

A couple of years ago, our town voted to close its designated Youth Library in response to budget cuts. A group of us gathered signatures, attended meetings and protested throughout the whole process. Sadly, the closure happened despite an outpouring of support. Now the building houses an employment center.