Petitions, protests, read-ins and demonstrations confronted the announcement by the financially pressed New York Public Library that eight branch libraries would be promptly closed with still others to be shut down within the next two years. Other branches and the great central library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street have had their hours and services curtailed. There was something both noble and pathetic about the neighborhood people who protested. The elderly and the young told something of what libraries mean to them — solace, a place to reflect, study, research a school paper, let the imagination roam, or obtain self-help guidance or civic information.
One man, who described’ himself simply as “a citizen of the city of New York,” donated 315,000 to help keep a branch library in the Bronx open for a few more months until the community could organize longer term support.
Over history’s time, the destruction of libraries, whether by war or dictatorship, has been viewed as a serious blow to freedom and democracy. In New York it’s seen merely as a way to save some money.
One can make a long list of waste, fraud or institutional crime that deserve higher priority for budget slashing in the city’s accounts. But libraries are relatively easy pickings.
What politicians ever won or lost an election over their stand on libraries? The protesters were noble, but their cries had the echo of pathos about them.
Around the country, libraries are witnessing growing and varied demand for their services amidst shrinking budgets. The prices of books, video equipment, fuel and electricity are zooming upward while our political leaders’ recognition of what libraries mean to millions of Americans declines.
People do not associate Gerald Ford with books, but he did not have to go to such lengths to intensify the image. In his latest annual budget proposal to the Congress, President Ford provided nothing for the nation’s 8,500 public libraries.
Last year he asked for 10 million dollars and Congress appropriated about $52 million under the Library Services and Construction Act. In the overall yearly expenditure of about $1 billion for public libraries (mostly raised locally), 352 million is not that much. But without this sum services at libraries will be squeezed further, especially the bookmobile and outreach programs that have been developing.
To highlight the needs and benefits of libraries, Congress passed legislation in 1974 for a White House conference on library and information services to be held in 1978. President Ford has done nothing to start the machinery in motion for this conference and its parallel state gatherings.
But Congress has had its brusque moments as well. Until the Senate indicated its stern opposition, the leaders of the House of Representatives wanted to take over the nearly completed annex to the overstuffed Library of Congress as another office building for their colleagues.
What will it take to develop a power base from the grass coots to Washington behind libraries and their emerging role as community information centers? Certainly it will take more than data about the alarming percentage of functional illiterates (20 percent) in the country and what expanded library teaching classes could do for them.
It will take more than conveying testimonials by library consumers or scenarios of what modern technology can do for library services of the future — such as instantly connecting them to the country’s leading libraries.
The stimulating force must come from the communities directly in the form of organized “Friends of the Library” groups. It would not take a large number of people or a great amount of time to assess the needs and weaknesses of local libraries and galvanize the community into at least arresting their worsening plight.
If enough of these groups work together, the impact on Congress will be stronger to reassess its library support policy and its spending priorities.
The connection between the crumbling of local institutions in this country and their causes has received too little attention at the local level. If the torch of knowledge employed at the local level can help begin the process of reconstruction, the library could be its pilot light.
Send us your suggestions about how to help library services to P. 0. Box 19312, Washington D.C. 20036, and we will select the best ideas for a late- report.