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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23 Responses to “Do Public Libraries Still Have Value?”

  1. Kristen says:

    beautiful shots. I too loved my local library. Still do!

  2. Paula says:

    We can’t NOT afford to keep our public libraries open. Hasn’t this question already been brought up and put down in Chicago (see Chicago Public Library Commissioner Dempsey’s letter to Fox News’ story asking where public libraries were worth the cost – It is a shame that two library branches are being closed and it speaks poorly to our area’s priorities. A public library does not exist to make money, it exists to give free access to information and knowledge to its community.

  3. Gene Hart says:

    “As a society we endorse our values with our pocket book.” I wish I had said that and I think I will steal it in the future. Excellent piece, Jeremiah.

  4. Virginia says:

    “Libraries will get you through times of no money
    better than money will get you through times of
    no libraries”–Anne Herbert

  5. DebSF says:

    Awesome photos, Holly. And terrific piece, Jeremiah.

  6. Annie says:

    I’m a librarian and have always been an avid library user. It breaks my heart to hear people say that we now have the Internet so we don’t need libraries. Because by “we”, those people leave out the poor, a large population of the elderly and many others who can’t afford or don’t know how to use the Internet. Who will teach those people how to search for jobs and pay bills online if not your public librarians? Ach, I could go on forever about the values of the library. Great article. Hope those branches stay open.

  7. mark t leischner says:

    I can’t imagine a world without libraries.

  8. Nancy says:

    I am a volunteer for a branch library of MRL and feel really bad that the board feels it had to close down two of it’s branches. I have seen in a time of economic stress more and more people are coming to the Library to ask for help in finding and or applying to jobs and asking for help in learning their way around the computer. They cannot afford to have a computer at home and the library provides free service with a free library card.

    Books–kids and adults are borrowing books and reading more. They no longer can afford or want to buy books. The same goes for DVD’s.

    The library is a good resource for information of all kinds–if we don’t know the answer we know where to look.

    We are a fun group offering information, good books and a listening ear to all who enter our doors.
    Please keep those doors open and don’t cut anymore of our funding.

    Thanks Jeremiah for your article

    • Joe says:

      just thinking here…why not take public libraries and put them under public education. to save money, land, resources etc…have the public library be an extention of the school system…have them on high school campi etc…

      it could be a win-win…public libraries are saved, cost is saved, resources are saved, and the high school gets a bigger and better library.

      • Brooke says:

        Along with what David said about strangers coming on and off of campuses, there’s also the fact that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a high school library to meet the needs of both their students/faculty as well as the general public, simultaneously. There’s also the cost of building bigger libraries and upgrading equipment to handle the extra books that would need to be housed in the consolidated school library.

  9. David Miller says:

    Security, schools cannot have people coming and going from their campuses.

    • BN says:

      When I was in middle school, this very thing happened. The local branch of the public library moved into the school. It can be done. It was a short-term fix until they could get their own digs again, but it happened. Yes, security is an issue, but with creativity it can work.

  10. Lois Jones says:

    Thanks so much for the great article and beautiful pictures!

  11. FM says:

    The article said that 6,000 new people had gotten library cards in recent years. So why even ask the question? Yes, OF COURSE we still need libraries! Those 6,000 people do–in addition to the thousands who already had cards.
    Unfortunately, we do NOT vote with our pocketbooks. Otherwise fire fighters, EMTs, teachers, and police officers would be paid more. Instead we take for granted these fine public servants and the services they provide while enjoying the benefits of their skills and talent, but complain when we pay for it (taxes). No one “loves” to pay taxes, but can we agree that there are community services that benefit everyone and are worth our money? Libraries are necessary for democracy and create better communities. Thanks for this article which points that out in such a lovely way.

  12. David Miller says:

    Anyone who hates paying their taxes should take the Citizen’s Academy through the city. Its eye opening to realize how much the city does behind the scenes to make our lives downright easy

  13. Deb SF says:

    NYT article today about private companies taking over public libraries…

    And this private for-profit company in CA is still getting volunteers at the library.

  14. DebSF says:

    Very cool essay and photos about the traveling libraries once supplied to Michigan’s lighthouse keepers.

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