Public libraries first started to crop up in England, by a fortuitous coincidence, at the same time Shakespeare was alive and producing works that would stock the shelves of libraries in every corner of the world for the next four centuries. Libraries have become such reliable community pillars in many places that they have become easy – maybe too easy – to take for granted.
If residents of Chartiers-Houston School District had comfortably assumed that their community library would always be there, that faith has been severely shaken in the last week or so. As this newspaper reported June 3, the 50-year-old library on Grant Street in Houston might have to shut its doors permanently because the school district is planning on withdrawing $50,000 it contributes every year to the library’s operating budget. The library stays afloat on a shoestring compared to other facilities, with an annual budget of only $147,000. With $50,000 constituting one-third of that budget, you can think of it as a three-legged stool – take one leg away and the whole thing falls to the floor.
“The Chartiers-Houston Library is in trouble,” Bill Hill, the library’s board president, told the Observer-Reporter. The situation is indeed dire: “Unless we can replace the money, we will have to close. We will not have enough to pay the staff, keep the lights on or pay the insurance.”
But it’s not as if the school district has been commandeered by miserly Mr. Potter from “It’s a Wonderful Life” and they’re being parsimonious for the joy of it. They are looking at the possibility of furloughing personnel as a result of increased costs and cutbacks in state aid. The story is similar in Washington – Citizens Library is facing the possibility of losing almost $27,000 in annual funding provided by Trinity Area School District. Though it’s not do or die for Citizens, that $27,000 would cover three months of utility bills or a host of other needs at the facility.
Short of a philanthropic outlay like the one industrialist Andrew Carnegie made for libraries around the country a century ago, we wish we could report that there is a simple, one-size-fits-all solution for library funding that would ensure they prosper in all economic seasons. In Ohio, to cite one example, voters are regularly asked to support millage increases for libraries when they go to the polls and, for the most part, voters sign off on them. This validation from the public, along with fairly robust state support, has left the Buckeye State with libraries that many observers believe best Pennsylvania’s in terms of the state-of-the-art amenities they offer and the depth and quality of their collections. In Pennsylvania, attempts to increase millage rates for libraries have not met with similar success. One within Pittsburgh to support branches of the Carnegie Library triumphed at the ballot box a few years ago, but similar campaigns in Monroeville and Springdale – the latter being the home of the literary eminence Rachel Carson, who penned “Silent Spring” – were defeated.
So it could very well be that, for now, the best way libraries can be supported is through citizen involvement. If they use and believe in their libraries, they need to tell their elected officials they want to see funding maintained, or increased.
With the advent of e-books and a host of other means of disseminating information, the role of the library is in a state of transition. No longer does a student have to plow through copies of the latest edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica in order to polish off a report on ancient Rome. But libraries are still vitally important for a community’s quality of life. To paraphrase Walter Cronkite, the price of libraries is cheap compared to the cost of having an ignorant populace.