Friday, April 23, 2010

Who Needs Liberries?

This morning I woke up with the intention to visit the recently constructed Silverlake branch of the LA public library. Well, intention frustrated: there's a big fat lock on the door. For a moment, I thought "Arbor Day already?" but no - as of last week, the city's libraries are open only for half-days on Fridays owing to our gaping budget shortfall.

Obviously, we need to cut things from the budget. No-brainers, like laying off some but not all of the city-employed calligraphers, are few and far between, and they're fairly niggling cuts. Our city calligraphy budget was only a million dollars per year. There are also no-brainers, or near-no-brainers, on the other side of the necessity spectrum - yesterday, Mayor Villaraigosa affirmed his commitment not to cut non-civilian police or fire personnel.

But where on this spectrum do libraries lie? I think I'm not alone when I say closer to calligraphers than firemen - but just barely. Access to libraries does seem to be one of those luxurious civil rights, but a right nonetheless, and important for democracy, especially now that public libraries are increasingly becoming internet access providers for the most disadvantaged members of our society (and more especially because public libraries are often the first stop in a job search, and who needs them more during an economic downturn).

The reduction in hours is slim and doesn't seem to be a serious threat to democracy. But technology is changing the role of public libraries more than this temporary budget crisis will, and as this role shifts permanently from "warehouse of information that everybody needs" to "access point to information for people who don't have access at home," it seems like there will be more pressure to limit public funds spent on libraries.

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