Is Anyone Fighting For Your Town’s Library? [Reader Forum]

As cash-strapped city governments across the country talk library closures, we ask what's at stake for your community.

By Channing Kennedy Jun 05, 2011

So this week, the big hit on was (drumroll)… my mom.

No, really! On Thursday we ran an interview I did with my mother, Barbara Jean Walsh, about her two decades as a small-town librarian. The story she told me is one of a necessary public service getting monetarily disenfranchised by classism and ‘reform,’ laying the groundwork for complete phaseout during the next budget panic. And all this happened long before the internet came along. (Not too long before. She’s not that old.)

There are parallels here, not just to the present trend of library closures, but to public services across the board. If cash-strapped city governments are able to shut down something as universally loved as their own libraries, what chance do job training programs or free health clinics have?

The piece struck a chord with our readers; turns out y’all are nerds who grew up in libraries! Welcome home. As my mother pointed out, libraries often take on the role of neighborhood center, providing a safe place for kids to spend time while waiting for a parent to get off work — something that’s vital in many communities of color.

If you’d like more information about what Oakland libraries are facing, and how the cuts are directly affecting communities of color, check out the Save Oakland Libraries campaign, which has events, information, and printable petitions. One question before we get into the commentary: why is it that so many of our thoughts about libraries are of childhood memories, rather than from our adult lives?

Here’s the aproposly-named libraryvixen:

You hit it on the head with "they weren’t part of the economic community that used the library." They still are not and do not want to be, even though in my library I can see and economic shift in library users with the decline in the economy the range of demographics and economic levels is more diverse than ever, and yet we still not part of that economic community.

Our library has a Social Worker on our FT staff, as well as an outreach team to aid our patron who need it. I am fortunate in my library, but not immune from the threat of cuts.

Ferny Reyes used nerdiness to become a jock, probably creating a dimensional warp in the process:

As a kid, the library was my refuge – it gave me a community that I felt far more attached to (the librarian) than the kids I played Little League with. I remember one time leaving the library to little league practice next door and getting made fun of because I had taken out a book on baseball tactics and swinging techniques."A book can’t teach you how to play baseball." Screw that. I read that book cover to cover and practiced all the advice it gave. Easily had the highest batting average in the team.

There are many more stories,including that my mom correctly assumed I hadn’t run away from home – I had just fallen asleep in the library.

Swiftcall names some old favorites:

My mother used to take me to the library once a week when I was little, and I would check out 4-5 books a week. She used to sit me in her lap and help me read them.

I remember the bookmobile. Once a week, I think Fridays, in the parking lot of a strip mall (Sunset Ridge). I used to check out books by Anne McCaffrey and Alexander Key (flying dragons and talking animals). Then I started to get into real science fiction like the Foundation trilogy and Ringworld. Of course today, we have Harry Potter – which my parents would have freaked on, being God-fearing Christians.

I really miss my childhood.

Crystal Evans was also from an area served by a bookmobile:

One of my fond memories as a kid was going to the local bookmobile. I thought that place was magic because there were a lot of books there and I checked out my share. As I got older, I used to check out the albums that they had there. It is too bad that this funding battle is going on.

On Facebook, M Starita Boyce says it’s time to give up on traditional funding methods for services in communities of color:

[This is] part of the systemic inequities that cause the education gap in communities of color. Black and Brown people must create their own Giving Circles/foundations to provide health and education recources for our communities. Foundations and government are not going to do it. We need a grassroots advocacy and philanthropy movement.

And finally, here’s my mother, Barbara Jean Walsh, who leaves us with an example of what a library can look like when it has the community and city support it needs.

I’ve been asked why I didn’t comment on the tiny library where I worked in Brooksville, Maine, and here’s the answer: Brooksville is not a public library. It’s a non-profit corporation. When I was there in the late eighties, early nineties, we were open only 10 hours a week, but we had 20 volunteers, and probably more of our books were donated rather than bought. This town of 750 people raised $7,500 a year. I’m sure you can do the math. But, the community was very homogenous and well-educated. The strengths of that library were, again, community ownership, a core collection that matched the interests and needs of its patrons, and EIGHTEEN library board members who were all champions.

So: what’s at stake for your community if the library disappears? And who’s fighting to keep it open and alive?


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