OpEd – Letter to the Editor
The Public Library. What images does this phrase evoke? A world filled with books and quiet places for reading, studying, or contemplation? An eager Saturday jaunt for the next installment of your favorite read? Or, maybe it is a place to get in out of the cold, apply for a job, or learn about much needed community programs?
Hopefully, it is all this and more, for the concept of the Public Library is a simple one. It is a place where the public, the everyday folk, can go and find all the things they seek free of charge. But this is being threatened by the economic times in which we live, by the rising costs of resources and labor. We understand all too well that the term “free of charge” is a bit of a misnomer, that our public libraries cost municipalities and the tax payers thousands of dollars per year. And what I am asking for is your support in this upcoming election by voting “yes” for the 1.5 increase to the library millage, to help keep our doors open. To be sure, we are all struggling in this tough economic season and an increase in property taxes can seem like a burden we simply cannot afford. But at what cost are we willing to watch the public library and the services it provides to the community disappear forever?
Many may think the public library an archaic concept. The Internet has made massive amounts of information available to all those who can access it, yet there lies the dirty little secret behind our great Digital Age. In a world filled with rules about who has access and at what cost, our public libraries may be the last vestige of open access to information. Copyright laws restrict when created material, like books, can be made freely available to the public. So the new Tom Clancy book is not going to be available on the Internet but has to either be purchased at the local Barnes and Noble or can be accessed freely at the public library. Online databases are another such issue. You want to perform a genealogical search online. Most genealogy databases, like Ancestry.com, cost money to access due to restrictions placed on that information by the managing corporation. But what the public library does is enter into the contract and pay the fee so that you can have access to that information for free.
But the public library aids the community in ways that go beyond informational. The digital divide is not just about how one can access knowledge but who has access to it. Popular to contrary belief many households do not have computers and access to the Internet. Today’s public libraries are becoming less about books and more about space and digital services. Where else can you go and spend the day reading or studying without having to purchase a thing? Having access to computers and the World Wide Web is to have access to the outside world and all the opportunities therein, and the public library is the only place that anybody, regards of race, gender, age, or economic status can access that.
Take, for example, the Bay County Library System, which is comprised of one central library, three branch libraries, and a bookmobile and services a primarily rural population of 106,935 people, the county seat, Bay City, having a population of 34,521. In 2006 Bay County residents voted twice against a millage increase resulting in the closure of two branch libraries, the bookmobile, and reduced hours for the other locations. According to the Bay County Library System website, the bookmobile “provides library services for Bay County residents who do not live near one of our branches. It is on the road three days a week, Tuesday through Thursday, stopping at 45 locations, including senior and day care centers, throughout the county on a rotating, 3-week schedule.” Only after a reduced millage was passed the following year was all but one library branch able to resume normal business hours.
Imagine having to forgo your library services for a year that includes access to written and technological materials. Remember, there was a time the public library was not free just anyone. It has been a hard fought battle to create a space that is both inclusive and educational. And it is only by the continued support of the community, by your continued support, that we will continue to make this access a reality for generations to come.