This is the third year of huge proposed budget cuts to the public library systems in the city of New York. The budget gets negotiated between now and June 30th between the mayor and city council. I’m observing a lot of complacency in librarians and patrons that are just tired and sarcastic about this process. I am very sure that the final cut will not be as large as the proposed 30 or so percent, but I feel the fact that a cut that large is on the table at all makes the matter serious.
For the overall city budget the mayor did not suggest cuts for teachers, and police. Those services are needed, and I’m glad they are not threatened. Excluding libraries in that safety zone means that the perception of libraries as a community service is not as highly regarded as those fields. Basically they classify libraries as a want and not a need. Also for this third year in a row, one has to assume the cuts are more than simply the economy.
First I’ll state the libraries are needed in communities these days. For school kids after school and during the summer it is the only truly free resource to supplement or add to their education. If kids need help with school assignments they go to the library to study, use computers, get books, and look up things. After twelve grade people are on their own to pay for college. The public library is the only place people can become self-educated. Adults can study for the GED test or the GRE test through the library. There are programming, adult literacy, and several things going on at libraries. Libraries have a broad range of services, and are being utilized now.
Secondly, people always point to technology as a reason that libraries are becoming less important. A few years ago a few people stated to me that everyone would have home computers, but people still greatly need public computer access at the library. I don’t know about ten years from now, but I can’t predict the future. In the last year the popularity of ebooks has skyrocketed, and some people say to me no one will need to check out books in the future. Already I think that technology has effected circulation in libraries. There is a legitimate question of how ereaders will affect libraries in the future. I think the focus has or will go away from evaluating libraries on print materials, and the focus will be on other services. Programming, information access, adult learning, recreational clubs, and the library more as a community space might be the future. The public libraries will have to adapt to technology. I believe I’ll have a full career as a librarian because the field will be able to adapt, because libraries have adapted to plenty of changing times.
Lastly, with this budget and future budgets I ask people to evaluate libraries on today’s services. Evaluate libraries on how it helps communities today. Do not judge libraries by ‘what if’ scenarios and forecasts of the future. In ten years a lot could happen to a lot of fields. Technology will have more effects on how people work, and I hope libraries will have a valuable place long into the future. But people stating and thinking that in the future libraries will not be needed is irrelevant to what we are doing today.