Save public libraries

Full disclosure: I LOVE books. I love the way they look stacked on shelves and scattered on my bedside table. I love the way the pages feel; I love the way they smell.

Ipso facto, I love the library.

When I was home on maternity leave with twins more than a decade ago, my sanity was saved by the public library system, which in New York is especially wonderful since you can order any book you want online, and it will be delivered to the branch of your choice. (Even without that I would have benefited from the proximity of my local branch – two blocks away – and the fact that everything there is free, a big plus when your family has expanded from three to five overnight!)

I go to the library at least once a week, either the branch near my home in the Bronx, or near my job in Manhattan, and both are always PACKED. I mean, seriously, at the Manhattan branch, I frequently have to wait on line to check out books. And the Bronx branch is always full of people, from kids to teenagers to senior citizens.

So I do not pretend to be unbiased, and in fact, I was outraged that, as the NY Times reported last week, “public libraries are always among the first city services to be threatened with substantial cuts.”

Now, billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg’s budget has other outrageous cuts, all of which have in common that they make working people pay or suffer for the economic crisis.  Proposed to be closed are 16 daycare centers, 50 senior centers and 20 firehouses. Parks, pools and beaches will be shuttered.

But the cuts proposed to the libraries are as cruel as the others, and I wondered, why are they “always among the first?” Is the idea that libraries don’t provide essential services?

In fact, public libraries are absolutely essential, to a democratic society, and to the overall wellbeing of working people.

As Margalit Susser, president of the union that represents Queens library employees put it, “We’re more than a library, we are part of the community.”

Libraries are not just about books – people go there to read newspapers and periodicals, for movies and music, for classes and concerts. And millions use the internet at the library.

A recent study by the University of Washington found that “low-income adults are more likely to rely on the public library as their sole access to computers and the Internet than any other income group,” and that “people relied on library technology to find work, apply for college, secure government benefits, learn about critical medical treatments, and connect with their communities.”

Libraries are community centers, hosting cultural events and offering classes. They teach English to immigrant adults.

Of course, the two key (and beautiful) words to remember when it comes to libraries are “public” and “free.”

Which is why libraries should be fought for as hard as we fight for everything else that is threatened by the economic crisis. And by the way, needless to say, Bloomberg’s cuts to the libraries include lots of layoffs — close to 1000 workers — many of whom are women.

Christian Zabriskie, from Urban Librarians Unite, said, ” These budget cuts will destroy the public libraries in this city as we know them, marginalize our impact on our communities and deprive our citizens of information, culture and entertainment.”

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