When the ax hits libraries, culture is eviscerated

MICHAEL OLESKER

September 13, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The libraries are staging a holding action against the future. Put down that damned remote control for a moment and pay some attention: The life of the mind struggles for existence, and even the city that reads shrugs its shoulders.

In the wave of chilling budget cuts sweeping the landscape, all government agencies shudder. But the Enoch Pratt Library takes an ice pick in the heart.

Though their efforts cost less than 1 percent of the city's budget, Pratt officials say 12 percent of the city's new budget cutbacks would come from the library.

This isn't a matter of mere numbers, though numbers matter. It isn't even about fairness, although unfairness is rampant here. It's about values.

Libraries are the places we keep our ideas, and our history and culture and our sense of who we are and how we got to be this way.

If all of this sounds self-evident, it seems not to be to those who move the budget numbers around.

In the dying days of this vulgar century, the written word has become society's afterthought. Television makes information too easy. We mistake flash for substance, entertainment for information, speed for depth.

Literature struggles for attention in a culture of immediacy. We worry about the kids paying attention, but the truth is, it's the adults, too, who've devalued print. If we can look up from the television for a moment, we can see it written all over the new budget figures.

"The more we cut ourselves off from funding the library, the more we cut off our own future," Anna Curry, director of the Pratt Library, was saying last week.

She sat in one of the central library building's old conference rooms, with paintings of long-deceased men on the walls, and members of her staff gathered around her voicing concern for the life of this institution.

"When it comes to budget cuts," said Gordon Krabbe, the library's chief fiscal officer, "the police, the fire department, the schools are all untouchable. And we understand that. But why don't they feel that way about us?"

"We're the University of the People," Curry said. "We level the playing field for everyone. Don't they understand that?"

The budget cuts hit in the most obvious ways: There's barely any money to buy new materials. Libraries aren't merely museums of words; they're organisms that live in the present tense, too.

As the world of science, of the arts and modern media and the culture itself change, so does the library -- and so do the needs of its readers.

"There's a misconception about books," said Marva Belt, who heads the Pratt's materials management. "People think they're a commodity that last over time, and, therefore, anything you don't buy this year won't have a devastating effect because you can always come back later and buy it.

"It's no longer true. The shelf life of new titles has dropped dramatically. The time for buying is very short. If you don't buy a book now, in 18 months you can't get it at all. The publishers simply don't make large print runs any more."

It's one more sign of a culture devaluing the written word. Politicians understand that. Cut from the library, they figure, and who's going to complain?

For openers, children will, and they make up about one-third of the Pratt's users.

"We can entice them when they're young," said Marva Belt, "but we can't provide the books as they go along. The kids tell you what they want. They discover new books for you. They see them advertised on TV, or a friend tells them about a book. They want to have it. But we can't give it to them."

She holds up stacks of papers, requests for books that came in to the central library, which were turned down because the system didn't have the book. There look to be close to 200 turned-down requests in the stacks. It is just one month's figure, and merely from the central library.

"People come through the door," said Gordon Krabbe, "and we simply don't have the material."

Ironically, as the libraries fight for money, usage has risen. It's up 28 percent over a year ago. It's an old corollary: The economy's bad, library materials are free, and so attendance is up. People are looking for literature, yes, but also for information.

"Many people," said Anna Curry, "are back in school; many women are back in the work force. We have many middle-aged women who use the library, but they're not just here to read Danielle Steele.

"They're students; they're working. The student, no matter his or her age, is the most prevalent user of the library. These people are improving their own lives, and the lives of the community. And it's getting tougher to serve them."

Times are tough for everybody. The state talks of cuts beyond the imagining of previous governors. The city talks of cuts that go beyond even the horrors of the last dozen years.

In such a grim time, it's too easy to write off the libraries.

They seem an afterthought in a nation leading a breathless lifestyle mirrored by the length of television sound bites.

But every cut takes its toll -- not only on information, or entertainment, but ideas. Not only words on paper, but a sense of who we are and where we go from here.

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