Library budget proposal troubling

I about fell out of my chair reading the local daily this morning. I knew the mayor had unveiled his 2011 budget but I was shocked when I read he was proposing cutting the library budget by 44 percent. Since I was still on my first cup of coffee, I decided to hold off on completely exploding until I saw the actual budget proposal.

Once I actually reviewed the proposal, I remained irritated enough to dash off an email to the at large members of the City Council and the one from my district. (Much of what follows comes from that email.) Granted, the vast majority of the cuts come in the building area. If that means I need to wait a while longer for the new Westside library, I can understand that. But some of the other proposed cuts are quite disheartening.

For example, the mayor proposes to totally eliminate the summer reading tutoring program for children. I can’t imagine the program is that costly. Perhaps there is another source of funds for this program but, if not, it appears we are unwilling to invest in the future of this community but are willing to place budget cuts on the backs of those who may need it most. Likewise, the proposal totally cuts funds for equipment ($1.1 million, although that may reflect pushing back the Westside library) and, unbelievably, reduces the amount to acquire books and A/V items by more than half. This is despite the fact the “Need to Know” section of this portion of the proposal already acknowledges, “Continued reductions in expenditures for library materials inhibits ability to meet customer demand.”

Now I understand there’s some impact from “holdbacks” earlier this year and other matters that may not make the comparative figures totally accurate. At the same time, anyone who goes to the main library or the branches (and I do a lot) will see heavy usage at almost any time, particularly in the computer area. An American Library Association study released earlier this year indicated that since the recession local libraries have “become a lifeline.” The statistics the budget proposal itself contains shows that may well be the case with Siouxland Libraries. Computer use has doubled in five years. More than 190,000 people a year use the library. The number of registered borrowers increased nearly seven percent from 2008 to 2009 alone while the number of items borrowed per capita increased 15 percent over the last five years.

I know money is tight and, admittedly, libraries are high on my list of priorities. Yet while I have long believed our library is a shining diamond for my city, I understand the City needs to be fiscally responsible. If that means building projects or non-essential maintenance is delayed, so be it. But to cut appropriations for equipment and acquisitions is the opposite of what we should be doing in today’s economy. Libraries are a crucial part of our quality of life and directly impact some of the less advantaged in our community.

Granted, books aren’t roads and streets but not only can they teach people how to build those roads, I believe they take us a lot more places and a lot further in life. Besides, it’s far less costly to repair a bumpy road than an illiterate child or adult.

For those without money, the road to that treasure house of the imagination begins at the public library.

Pete Hamill, May 14, 2009

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