Libraries - The First Cut is the Deepest

AJThomson's picture

This was supposed to run as an op-ed in the Daily News, but my editor rightly said that the paper can't turn into the A.J. Thomson gazette, so please enjoy and feel free to send around to others:

It’s time to tighten our belts in Philadelphia. We can see the budget crisis forcing the closure of pools, reduction in Police overtime, removal of fire engines and across the board cuts in some city expenditures and salaries. We’re not just trimming fat. We’re cutting essentials. The city needs to spend less, no doubt, but as we get to that last loop and the last hole in the belt, we must seriously look at what we are doing to reach the magic number of required savings. Specifically, we must analyze the true costs and benefits of the closure of eleven libraries in our communities.
Unlike some of the other cost-saving measures, these proposed closures are permanent. Whereas the reduction in pools and city-worker overtime seem to be viewed as short-term fixes to the budget and, apparently, will return at some point, the closure of our libraries is treated by this budget edict as the sale of a luxury item, like a yacht, a fur coat or something that our city just can’t afford anymore. This is folly. Libraries are not a luxuries, they are the bread and butter of the next generation of productive Philadelphians.
I’ll admit that there have been a times in my life that I haven’t used our community branch as much as I should have. I’m sure accountants somewhere in the revenue department can rifle off statistics demonstrating that closing these libraries will save us a significant amount of money in salary reduction, while emphasizing that the kids can go to other libraries in the city. However, the significance of the library in my community and those communities that are losing their treasures is immeasurable by such normal accounting methods. The kids just can’t go somewhere else.
In that last few years, I’ve returned to the library with my daughter, Julia, at night to introduce her to learning in a way that reading to her at home, using Leap Frog, television, nursery school or any other teaching method cannot compare. Looking at it from her perspective, she enters a building surrounded by books that is usually ruled by kids. The shelves are stocked with nothing but stories. It’s the highlight of her week. In January, it’s gone. No macro-or-micro economic explanation boiled down to four-year-old speak is going to erase that hurt. She’ll pass by this place and wonder why she can’t go in and read a book about tigers and learn how to use a computer. Repeat this scene tens of thousands of times throughout Philadelphia. There will certainly be tears.
Think about the significance of those tears. These are tears shed over learning, shed over books. In today’s society, when the television rules and some kids would sooner click a remote than turn a page, thousands of children from toddlers to high-schoolers will cry at the loss of the place in which they forge their dreams. The one place in our city that they go to learn, but are not required to go. They’re forced to go to school. They have to do homework. Some have to go to an after-school program. But they CHOOSE to go to the library. I ask the question: We are closing these places?
We all recognize the need to save, but, before we shutter our libraries, let’s explore ways in which to keep them open. Brainstorming for a few minutes, it’s easy to propose a few common-sense public-private partnership solutions to this crisis:

• Co-operative operation of the Library by community volunteers with reduced staff and hours that afford the maximum utility of resources
• Engagement with our local universities to use work-study funds and other mechanisms to fund staffing and possibly ownership/caretaking of each library
• Private foundation funding to set-up community ownership of these libraries with community-based volunteers to staff the entities.

Let’s take a deep breath and examine the impact of their closure in both economic and civic perspectives. Again, the Free Library System is not a fleet of expensive classic luxury cars of which we can sell a few in order to offset losses in other places. They are more than that. No self-respecting city should have children shed tears over the loss of the opportunity to learn. Poor or not, Philadelphia should view its libraries as off the table when it comes to tightening our belts. Make that last loop in the belt with something else.

Nunzio's picture

Good work, AJ. Plus, if

Good work, AJ. Plus, if Mayor Nutter wants to practice the full disclosure that he preaches, he'll tell us what is not getting cut. That is, I'd like to see what trumps libraries, recreation, police, and fire.

brooke's picture

I disagree with you on

I disagree with you on volunteer staffing. There's a reason librarians need Masters Degrees.