This year I am Chair of the California Library Association's Legislative Committee, which means I am getting an up-close look at how the perilous state of the economy and of the California budget are threatening library services.
Libraries across the state are reporting deep cuts to their budgets resulting in closed branches, reduced hours, elimination of online resources, book budgets that are being reduced by 50% or more, layoffs, furloughs, and hiring freezes. At the same time we are seeing extraordinary growth in demand for library services, especially in communities that have been hardest hit by the recession where the public library may be the only place people can come for free access to computers to prepare resumes and submit job applications. I can hear the strain in the voices of my colleagues as they try to balance these competing forces and still provide the best possible service to their communities.
All too often it feels like we are in competition with other public services, with the implication being that in a community's hierarchy of needs libraries are somehow less essential than "public safety" typically defined as fire and police.
People forget, and librarians find it difficult to articulate, that libraries play a unique role in a community in that they both play a role in public safety (by providing safe spaces and activities for people of all ages, providing access to medical and other basic information to support basic well-being, helping people find jobs, enhance their skills and otherwise sustain financial security) and help fulfill needs that are higher up on Maslow's hierarchy as an integral part of the educational infrastructure and a center for lifelong learning.
I've been reading a delightful little book called Dewey: the small town library cat who touched the world ,which is bringing this home to me. I thought it was going to be a sweet story about a cat, and it is, but it's also about the important role played by the library in a struggling farming community in Iowa during the farm crisis of the early 1980s. It's also a terrific read!
In yet another example of the synchronicity that the Internet fosters, this morning I came across this blog post by Stephen Abram. He hits the nail on the head when he writes
"I and most people would pay a hefty fee to be guaranteed that I and my family would never have to visit or be visited by the police, fire crews, hospital staff, or ambulances. The only thing on that list that I pay taxes for that I willingly and gladly choose to go to often is the public library.
And that's different in a special way. All the others are awesome and Lord forbid they not be there or funded properly. But the world will be a lesser place and life in our communities damaged forever, if our public libraries are sacrificed at the altar of budgeting."
And like Stephen I was thrilled to see this video from Minnesota (shared on the always interesting The M Word blog about marketing for libraries), which puts libraries alongside fire and police as an essential local service
These are tough times, and I know that cuts in basic services are inevitable. My hope, and my goal, is that we can help decision-makers understand that libraries are in fact basic services and that when cuts need to be made libraries are no less important to the safety and well-being of our communities than police and fire, schools, and hospitals.
Hats off to the people of Minnesota for expressing it so well.