July 6, 2010
Depth of cuts for library funding a major concern
July 6, 2010
There's something about cutting funding for public libraries that strikes at the very core of our democratic values, and it should be done only as a last resort in tough economic times.
Some 300 public libraries across the state are breathing a collective sigh of relief now that their funding has not been cut by $10.4 million, or 74 percent, as originally proposed in Gov. Christie's budget back in March.
In a compromise deal, Trenton lawmakers restored $4.3 million of those proposed cuts, resulting in a total of $7.9 million in funding for libraries for fiscal year 2011.
Still, that represents a whopping 42 percent reduction of about $6 million in total funding from 2010 levels of $13.7 million, and the exact impacts of those cuts across the state are still being formulated.
No one's suggesting libraries shouldn't share in the burden. But the numbers-crunchers and policymakers seem too willing to sacrifice large chunks of library funding. The effects are disproportionate and the value of our public libraries is not being fully appreciated.
The East Brunswick Public Library, for example, stood to lose $73,000 under the originally proposed cut of $10.4 million, and reduction officials there were characterzing as a "huge hit." The changes in the final funding reductions won't do much to ease that impact.
Likewise, the Plainfield public library, already reeling from $300,000 in cuts from the municipal budget, was apprehensive mulling how it would cope with an additional 50 percent cut in state aid. Collectively the cuts could be devastating, and this in a commmunity where residents have been increasingly relying on the library's resources.
Libraries will now do what they have to do — reduce costs by cutting things like staff, hours, internet access and interlibrary loan and delivery systems. That may not seem like a big deal to the more well-heeled members of our society who can afford things like internet access, books, periodicals and newspapers. But for the less affluent, losing access to basic information is an intolerable disadvantage in a nation that supposedly prides itself for its egalitarianism.
To this day, every child born on American soil can still plausibly be told: "Some day, you'll grow up to be President." That will be seem less and less plausible if our citizens cease to have relatively equal access to educational materials and the wealth of information that can be found in our free public libraries.
Speaking at a conference at the American Library Association, President Barack Obama said: "And so the moment we persuade a child, any child, to cross that threshold into a library, we've changed their lives forever, and for the better. This is an enormous force for good."
There is something sacrosanct about our free public libraries. To the extent that we diminish them, we diminish our power to create an educated and informed citizenry that is so crucial to the well-being of our country.
It is at least heartening to see that New Jersey state Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula, D-Franklin, has sponsored a bill that would allow public libraries to be funded by a dedicated revenue stream from local taxes — the same way the Middlesex County open space trust fund is structured. The bill recently sailed through the state Senate by a vote of 40-0 and is now headed for a vote in the Assembly.
"Libraries have a role even in today's 20th century — they bring people together, they're information resources and they're efficient as a shared resource," said Chivukula. "And people, when they they move away from reading and libraries, what happens is that it transforms our society into something which has no contact with other people."
The well-being of our free public library system should never be negotiable.
Posted by tumulty at July 6, 2010 11:07 AM
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