June 5, 2010 in City

Libraries matter more than ever

By Correspondent
Jesse Tinsley photo

College student Michelle Gregory looks through the reference section at the downtown Spokane Main Library on Friday.
(Full-size photo)

All right, I’ve finally figured out how the city’s budget works. The city gets in trouble, looks around for an easy target, spies the Spokane Public Library and hacks it to death.

Really? This is the best way to dig out of a budget hole?

Maybe I’ll go to the library and study this some more.

So here I am at the library, and the place is buzzing. It’s jammed with people reading, working on school projects, writing notes on index cards, checking out romance novels, applying for jobs on computers and just generally coming in out of the rain.

It’s a bustling place, the kind of place a person could, for instance, look up a little background on the library’s predicament. Earlier this year, the city knew that its revenues were in the tank, so it asked all city departments, including the Spokane Public Library, to take a 2.85 percent cut out of their projected 2011 budgets.

Fair enough. Every department should do its part during tough times. So the library’s administrators trimmed expenditures and pared the materials budget. They were able to make these cuts without substantially knocking back service to the public, which shows that their priorities were in the right place.

Then, last month, the mayor made another announcement. The library, and only the library, was going to have to swallow an additional 3 percent cut. This is what is called a “targeted” cut, meaning the library, as usual, was wearing a bull’s-eye. Now the library is looking at a budget cut in the half-million dollar range.

It’s a familiar story. For years now, our city’s libraries have suffered a frustrating and embarrassingly low status in our city. The downtown library – the flagship, the city’s symbol of learning and culture – wasn’t even open on Sundays and Mondays. Finally, in January, the library creatively juggled its resources and reopened on Monday. Finally, things were looking up. It was like a library Golden Era, an extremely brief library Golden Era.

Everybody with any practical, political sense knows why the city would go after the library. It’s so much easier than going after, say, the police and fire departments. Those departments save lives. Their people wear uniforms. Kids want to be cops and firefighters. Meanwhile, all the library does is provide a place for people to gain access to, oh, about 6,000 years of knowledge and culture.

But do we really need libraries that much anymore? Can’t everybody just log on to their Wi-Fi connection in some coffee shop and gain access to all that knowledge and culture?

That’s a fair question. And here’s the answer: The Spokane Public Library broke a record last year in check-out rates. This year, it is on track to break that record again, and also break records in library visits, job searches, computer use and attendance at kids’ programs.

Does that sound like an obsolete institution?

In fact, libraries are especially useful in hard times (see “job searches,” above). Modern libraries were conceived as a way to spread access to knowledge to everyone, not just the people who could afford to buy lots of books. Today, it works the same way with another addendum: It gives people who can’t afford a MacBook Pro and a high-speed connection access to knowledge.

So, yeah, libraries still matter, more than ever.

Meanwhile, this 3 percent cut looms, but it’s part of a preliminary budget proposal, not a final one. The mayor is still soliciting feedback on it.

All right, here’s my feedback. Quit picking on the library. If you have to make cuts, make cuts across the board. The library may not be vital in the same way that fire and police services are vital. It’s just vital in an entirely different way.

By the way, the information in this column came from newspaper stories, library newsletters and other sources. You can find it online, if you are fortunate enough to have a computer.

Otherwise, you can find it all in the library – assuming it’s open.

Read Jim Kershner’s previous columns at spokesman.com/columnists.

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