Thursday, September 23, 2010

Requiem for the Girl Who Loved the Public Library

I will never complain about paying taxes, because I've been the recipient of so much good from taxpayers in the past: public schools (mine were just fine, and my Ph.D. program at the University of South Carolina was solid and cheap), libraries, highways, fire and police forces (which happily, I haven't had to use, but I'm happy to have them there). I even benefited from decades of defense spending, as my dad was in the Air Force and then the Air Force Reserve, until he was old enough to retire; I bought many a record album at the BX and enjoyed all sorts of treats from the Commissary.

Until recently, I used the public library several times a week, not only to support my voracious reading habit, but also to get free movies and music. In graduate school, we even checked out framed pieces of art to hang on the walls for several weeks (thanks, Richland County Library!). I've always had my own computer and Internet access at home, but the computers at our public libraries are always packed, and I've noticed that lots of people bring their laptops to enjoy taxpayer funded wi-fi.

Last night I went to the main branch of the library in downtown Ft. Lauderdale. I was struck by how empty it was. I was there at 5:30, and I'm used to seeing hordes of students, families with their children, homeless people who are grateful for a place to perch for hours. Last night, I walked right up to the counter to check out my books; in past years, the line would have been at least 10 people deep.

I asked the librarian if this emptiness was common now, and she said that it depended on the time and the day. Our libraries have been cutting back hours, as have all our public services, and my apocalyptic side wonders how long it will be before we just shut them down completely.

But what a shame that would be! How many resources we would lose. Our main branch of the library even includes the largest collection of sheet music I've ever seen outside of music stores.

After I got home, my spouse and I sat outside savoring the view of the beautiful full moon and talked about my sorrow at the fact that I don't use the library as much as I once did. My spouse reminded me not to discount the fact that the resources were there should I ever need them again. Now I don't use the library as much because I can afford to buy books, and I don't check out movies because I can stream them from online sources. But I can do those things because I've reached a level of affluence. Not everyone is as fortunate.

I think that society depends on people like me to continue to pay for these resources for those folks who are less fortunate, and I'm happy to do so. I worry about where we're headed though. We've seen several generations of the rising affluent pulling their children out of public schools, and several generations of taxpayers who don't want to fund those schools. What a disaster.

We live in a difficult time, a time when municipalities must figure out how to cope with less money. We may have difficult choices to make. I'm praying and hoping for people who have visions of new ways to do things. After all, the public library system that I love so much was once a quirky and unique novelty born of people who refused to be constrained by hard circumstances.


Sandy Longhorn said...

Lovely post. It seems we've moved along similar paths, minus the Air Force father. Long Live the Libraries!

Kristin said...

Thanks for the compliment!

Karen J. Weyant said...

Ah...libraries. The state of Pennsylvania has just cut our public libraries' budgets by 10 percent. When I moved back to rural Pennsylvania, I was shocked to see how much the library is still used. Maybe it's because people who live in the country don't have the resources that others do in more urban areas? I will be going to the library today, and it will be crowded. Kids with piles of books in their hands, adults with the new releases, lines at the computer work space.

I understand that the fact of reading is changing, but please let the future include libraries!