Growing up in waterfront Philly in the 1950s, I didn’t have many of the prerequisites of today’s youth: giant screen HD TVs, DVDs, video game consoles, laptops, cellular phone messaging, and Facebook. At best, there were two venues open to most of us boys: the local show or playing stickball against brick factory walls. Movies were just a dime then, and Pa would cough up the change so I could find relief from Philly’s steamy asphalt and blanket humidity invading our upstairs flat . Otherwise, I played stick ball by the hours, half a tennis ball and a broom stick more than ample other than when I relied on a third option not resorted to by most of my fellow urchins—the local library.
When I look back upon it now, the library option may well have been the most pivotal shaping element of my childhood. Later I would go on to university study, complete a Ph. D., and teach English in college for more than 30-years, but it all began here. Roaming the shelves, I’d make these fabulous finds, whether the Dr. Dolittle books (my version of Harry Potter), or inspired by Classic Comics, the unabridged works of Hugo, Dickens, Poe, Hawthorne and others. Now mind you, it was something that didn't come easily as the branch library was a good half hour walk each way.
These days, hard times have fallen upon our libraries, and I grieve for them as I would for a beleaguered friend. I am troubled for their future and the impoverishment their loss would bring. Libraries are either closing or becoming so short-changed by state and local budgets that they gasp for life.
In Lexington, KY, my beautiful urban neighbor, the library budget has undergone a substantial decrease in revenue over the last two years, resulting in an elimination of 30 full-time positions, a reduction in part-time positions, and frozen wages. The 2012 budget promises more of the same, with the loss of three more people and no pay raise yet again. Much of the crisis is fueled by the excessive demands for pension and health care outlays by local police and fire personnel to whom the city is now in hock for 200-million. Meanwhile, the mayor’s budget allocates new funding for a lacrosse field and minigolf course. Hey, let’s get our priorities straight.
The dark clouds over our libraries loom nation-wide, threatening their very existence:
1. In Massachusetts, local communities have cut their funding below state minimum funding levels.
2. In California, San Diego’s mayor recently proposed cutting back sharply on library hours, virtually shutting them down in calling for a 2-day work week and alternate Sundays.
3. In Texas, Dallas has cut library hours from 44 to 24 weekly.
A similar wasteland scenario extends to college campuses. Here are two examples:
1. The Univ. of California (San Diego) has reduced its library budget by 16% over the last two years. In an attempt to cope, it has made cuts in supplies and equipment, decreased class and instructor support, slashed its hours, reduced digitalization, even maintenance, and eliminated 52 positions.
2. The University of Virginia has undergone 23.6 million in cuts. To cope, it’s not renewing nearly 1200 journals, reducing hours, cutting back on its collection budgeting, and not filling staff vacancies.
Libraries go back to the genesis of our great country, with John Harvard bequeathing his 400-book library in 1636 to the young college that would ultimately bear his name.
Benjamin Franklin founded the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731, now recognized as the first lending library and precursor of the free public library that has made America the envy of the world.
Andrew Carnegie valued libraries so highly that he donated 56 million for the construction of more than 2500 of them.
I think back gain to my Philly childhood and its material poverty; we lacked hot water, and sometimes we had little food or even heat in winter. But always there was the Montgomery Avenue Library, a long walk worth every step to a kingdom that hinted dreams could become palpable. To grow up poor isn’t the worst fate. To grow-up without a library, for government to impoverish a mind—that’s not easily forgivable.
As Barbara Kingsolver put it in Animal Dreams, “Libraries are the one American institution you shouldn’t ripoff.”