Do Public Libraries Still Have Value?

Jeremiah Knupp -- September 1st, 2010

For a six-year-old starving for knowledge of what existed outside Rockingham County’s borders there was paradise behind the concrete steps that led to the glass doors surrounded by a brick facade that sat on Newman Avenue.

Unless you’re older than thirty and grew up in the days before the Internet you may not understand how important a library could be to a child. Back then, “Google it” was “microfiche it;” flimsy translucent cards stuck into a black box, strange numbers scrawled down on a manila note card and then down the Dewey Decimal rabbit’s hole into the musty smell of old paper and binding glue, impersonal grey steel racks and a cool tile floor on which to sit huddled for hours with a stack of books in the dim fluorescent light.

I couldn’t travel to France, but the Louvre was at my fingertips in giant color photos. I’d never had a conversation with a Buddhist, but the tenants of Eastern philosophy were carefully laid out in paragraph form. I found the history that my school books left out, the fiction my teachers never made me read, the ideas that would never come out of the mouth of anyone I ever encountered.

And the movies…a yellowing wooden shelf lined with book-sized VHS tapes that provided something that a set of rabbit-ears can never bring into a rural living room. Kurosawa, Bergman, Kubrick, Coppola. What does an eight-year-old get out of watching Citizen Kane? Nearby were cassette tapes that produced a sound that would never come over local airwaves. Racks held more magazines than could ever been crammed into my country mailbox. It was an overwhelming and seemingly endless deluge, uninterrupted by commercials, advertisements or flashing pop-ups.

Last week, Massanutten Regional Library announced that it would close two of its branches in the small communities of Bergton and Stanley, while reducing hours of operation at four of its other locations. In announcing its decision of triage the library’s Board of Trustees sited a quarter million dollars in funding that has been lost over the past three years in spite of the fact that nearly 6,000 new patrons have signed up for library cards during the same period.

Budget cuts erode an institution like weather strips paint from a house. First a few cracks. Then things start to look shabby. “We’d like to fix it this year but we just don’t have the money. Maybe next.” Then the wood is stripped bare. The foundation starts to crumble and before you know it the shell that’s left isn’t worth fixing.

As a society we endorse our values with our pocket book. So we’re left asking ourselves “Do public libraries still have value?” Are they merely archaic and dying institutions that are a needless drain on our limited resources in the tight times of the Internet Age or is it important that there is a repository of knowledge left that is not held captive by a power outlet, a wireless signal or a password and is available to anyone who is willing to spend the effort to pursue it? Is it better to put a book in a child’s hand or a golf club? Does everyone have the right to access the Internet or only those who can afford it? Are we more secure with smart weapons or smart citizens?

Can we afford to keep our libraries open? If not, what is the price of seeing an empty handed child standing in front of a set of glass doors marked “Closed?”

September 14 is the final day that the Bergton and Stanley libraries will be operational. Local patrons and members of those communities are still looking into alternatives that would keep the branches open.

Photos by Holly Marcus.

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