|Central Rappahannock Regional Library Headquarters|
Libraries experience two things in an economic downturn: a reduction in funding and an increase in the number of patrons. The current recession is no exception. Libraries across the country are seeing more people come through their doors at the same time that they are having to cut back on staff, hours, and new book purchases.
It’s easy to see why more people use the library in tough economic times. For one thing, the library provides inexpensive entertainment (or escape.) New books are a luxury, not a necessity.* With paperbacks costing around $8 and hardcovers around $20 to $30 (even on sale), many people stop buying books when money is tight. Instead, they turn to the library. You may have to wait a little longer for the newest bestseller, but free is a substantial savings over the cost of a new book. And it’s not only books. A movie costs between $7 and $11 per ticket, Netflix is as much as $16 per month, and cable television will run you $30 or $40 per month for even the most basic service. Many libraries, however, have a good selection of movies and television programs available for checkout — for free.
Libraries provide other important services, particularly in this digital age. Most libraries have computers available for public use, allowing those without a home computer to check email, send out resumes, and use Monster.com and other job-hunting sites. Libraries may offer short classes or tutorials in how to use a computer, helpful for those who are not yet tech-savvy. These services can make the difference between being able to find a job and remaining unemployed.
Forget the hushed atmosphere of yesteryear’s library. The library of today is a vibrant place, sponsoring book clubs and programs for children, teens, and adults. Libraries host art exhibits, poetry competitions, community organization meetings, and even concerts. But they can’t do any of it without funding.
It’s not hard to understand why local and state governments cut library funding in a downturn. Tax revenues decrease, and governments face large budget shortfalls. Libraries aren’t perceived as being as essential as water and sewer services; police, fire, and rescue; road maintenance; and (one hopes) education. Faced with the need to make major reductions in their budget, governments will look first at the easiest cuts, the ones that appear to hurt the least number of people — like libraries and public parks.
I’m certainly not advocating cutting fire and rescue services or education in order to fully fund the local library. But I do think libraries are important to the well-being of a community. It’s important to let your local government know what and how much the library means to you. If government officials think that no one uses the library, they are much more likely to slash funding to the bone. If they understand what a vibrant library can mean to a community and the individuals in it, policy makers are more likely to preserve at least a functional library budget. Write or call your local and state representatives, and urge them to fund the library fairly.
I also urge you to get involved with your local library directly. Volunteer. Donate books for the library’s book sale. Buy books at the book sale! Ask about the possibility of donating new books for circulation. (Do understand, though, that even libraries have limited space, and that they have a much better idea of what their patrons want than you do. They may be very pleased to be given copies of new or bestselling books, but your old Encyclopaedia Britannica is outdated and not worth the shelf space.) Consider making a financial donation if you can afford to. And always, always thank the librarians for everything they do. Librarians don’t get paid a lot; they work there because they love it.
A good public library can be the heart of a community. Help keep yours alive!
*I know, I know. Books are essential to me, too. I love to read. Actually, I have to read. But you can’t eat books, and they won’t keep the rain off. If the choice is between eating and paying the rent/mortgage or buying books, food and shelter are going to win most of the time — unless you are Erasmus. (“When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”) And, as I’ve told myself when my own budget was tight, there is always the library. I trust there always will be.