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Tuesday, 20 December 2005
Have you hugged your library lately?
Topic: urban issues
Sometimes there’s actual deviltry in the details.

Take a sidebar to a recent Democrat and Chronicle story on the fast ferry. The story proper sampled public opinion about a pending $11.5 million bond-issue bailout for the ship. But I think the ancillary material really said more about our public-sector woes.

“The city subsidizes several operations,” read the sidebar. Besides the ferry, the operations named were the Blue Cross Arena (a $373,000 annual subsidy), the Riverside Convention Center (almost $770,000), and the public library system ($4.82 million).

But hold on. Do public funds for the library system constitute a “subsidy”? Yes, it’s Monroe County that has primary responsibility for the system, and so any contribution by the city – or other entities or individuals – could fall loosely into the category. But if that’s so, then city funding of street maintenance is also a subsidy. Or funding of police and fire protection, or whatever. The truth is, on almost any municipal budget line, you’ll find a mix of sources, right on up to Washington.

Yet we don’t talk about subsidies to the cops or firefighters. The money that goes to them is (rightly) considered an expenditure for vital services. The tax money flows to get the job done. In fact, as regards the police, the argument in recent years has been how to spend more and more.

Libraries are every bit as vital as these other services. And as such, they require public spending that is not optional. Without this spending – let’s call it rational investment - democracy can’t survive. How can you have a community without free sources of information and unimpeded access for everyone? How can you talk about education (and the “blah, blah, blah” never stops in Rochester, with much hand-wringing but little effective action) without thoroughly supporting its infrastructure?

America is finding out the hard way what it means to live without fully functioning libraries. Surveying the national scene, the American Library Association concludes: “Reduction in library funding has resulted in severe cuts to operating budgets, library closures, limited hours, reduced materials budgets, hiring freezes or elimination of personnel, and reduced library programming.”

There are many regions under pressure now. But the ALA zeroes in on a neighbor of ours. The Buffalo and Erie County library system, says an ALA backgrounder, “has approved closing 16 libraries, [which] will leave 36 branches open, though library officials noted those locations will operate with reductions in hours, staffing and services.” And this is happening, says the ALA, “at a time when public library activity in Erie County has reached an all-time high, with an annual circulation surpassing 9 million items.”

Here you see Rochester-Monroe County’s future. As our regional economy follows Buffalo-Niagara down the skids, and as working people take more hits from a Congress and White House inimical to every collective endeavor besides war, our libraries will accelerate their decline.

But don’t despair. The malls will keep growing (subsidized through tax breaks, etc.), the gated communities will spread further out into the greenspace (subsidies again), and the wealthy (with tax cuts in their Gucci wallets) will buy more books at Borders.

It’s enough to make you gag at the thought of cappuccino. Luckily, there’s plenty of good reading on the subject. Check out Monthly Review, for example, a fine socialist journal you can read for free at the Rochester Central Library, 115 South Avenue. See you in the stacks.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 10:59 EST
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