Commentary: Bookworm decries library cutbacks

Opinion posted December 8, 2011 in News by Brittany Stoner

Books are in my blood.

I've been a bookworm since the tender age of 3, and a writer since I was old enough to understand the idea of plot.

At 16, I became a library aide, and four years later, the Joseph T. Simpson Public Library in Mechanicsburg, Pa., is still my second home.

Imagine, getting paid to handle books all day?  It's like manna from heaven.

But if libraries are the heroes in my story, then funding cuts are the notorious villains, putting libraries in danger every year.

This is the third fiscal year Pennsylvania libraries will have to do battle against tightening state budgets.

Thirteen states reported library closings in 2010, according to the American Library Association (ALA).  In 2011, the number rose to 17.  Pennsylvania and New Jersey experienced the most library closings, the ALA reported.

While they did not close, the six libraries in the Cumberland County Library System (CCLS) – including Simpson Library – first experienced funding cuts in 2009. 

In 2010, Pennsylvania's appropriation for libraries was cut by more than $850,000.  In my home county of Cumberland, libraries dropped a combined 2,076 hours of operating service.  Three libraries closed for a day during the week.  Simpson Library closed on more Sundays during the summer.

Cumberland County libraries also cut more than $142,000 – 20 percent – from the new materials budget.

“That's a lot of books and other materials for kids, teens and adults that we won't ever be able to make available to our borrowers,” Jonelle Darr, executive director of Cumberland County libraries, said in a press release.

All these changes affected more than 1.3 million people who visit Cumberland libraries each year.

This fiscal year, Pennsylvania libraries will lose less than the previous year, about $200,000 total.  It could be much worse.

But while Pennsylvania libraries may be slightly luckier, the crisis is far from over.

Two libraries in Hammond, Ind., closed on Nov. 1 because of funding cuts.

City libraries in Queens, N.Y., lost almost $100 million, the New York Daily News reported in May.  They anticipated 1,500 staffing cuts, and 62 branch libraries in the borough stopped purchasing new books.  (They typically bought 8,500 books yearly.)

And in July, the overall state library budget in Texas dropped from $19.8 million to $7.2 million, reported Library Journal.

But there are knights in shining armor – book lovers.

The simple truth is books are a way of life – anyone who picks up a book just to inhale the smell of old paper and ink knows what I mean.

Reading binds us together.  We approach total strangers, just because they're reading a book we love.  We rage when the movie completely ruins the book.  We mourn when a beloved character dies ... or two or three or 20 (Harry Potter, anyone?). 

This bond is nowhere more evident than at our local library.

And ironically, libraries are crucial for today's unemployed.  For no charge, we provide you with your own library card and access to public Internet computers for job hunting.

Libraries are also still prime places for research – whether it's the old-fashioned way with a heavy reference tome, or surfing the Internet and the library's many online databases. 

It's also a place for kids and adults alike to enjoy themselves at story times or book discussions, furthering their literary comprehension and love of reading.

Sure, being a library aide isn't all fun and books, money crisis aside.  I break up fights over the public computers.  People scream at me about their fines.  I come home sore from lifting heavy crates of books.

But then a kid's face lights up when I find “that book with the yellow cover about the princess.”  Never mind that I had to search through hundreds of picture books about princesses, and that the book was really pink, not yellow.

Away at college, I've always combated homesickness by retreating to the closest library and wandering the stacks.  It reminds me that although libraries are suffering, they're resilient.

State budgets can take our money, but they can't take away the power of our love for books.

And that's what makes libraries the true heroes of the story.