Keep Harford's libraries open

February 01, 1993

Harford County is looking to close another community library in the name of consolidation. The library system seems intent on closing neighborhood branches and building new, expensive, state-of-the-art multi-media centers.

Plans to close the Highland library branch in Street were put on hold last week, after strong political pressure was brought to bear, but county library director Philip Place still wants to bolt the doors and refer patrons to Whiteford's new facility four miles away that opened in June.

The library system also backed off longer range plans to relocate the Bel Air branch outside the county seat, although reiterating the need to build that new facility when it can get the money.

We don't mean to be unsympathetic to Mr. Place's task of squeezing out maximum service from shrinking county funding. Resources may well have to be shifted. Hours have already been cut in some branches to better use existing staff. Bar-coding of materials will improve efficiency.

No one is ever willing to give up a convenient service, even while demanding that budgets and taxes be cut. But Highland and Bel Air branches have significance to their communities that transcends the number of "items" circulated per day.

The Highland library serves as a model for community-based services. It serves the senior citizens center and youngsters in the nursery school. A school for learning disabled children may be added there. The branch, open only 13 hours a week, provides important service to these groups and others in the northern Harford community, circulating about 1,000 books a month.

We're also concerned about the library system's cost analysis. The million-dollar Whiteford branch has an operating budget of $100,000, but is costing $135,000 to run and is open only 30 hours weekly. The Bel Air branch is always busy, while seldom overcrowded, but the library chiefs want to spend $9 million to establish a new library center.

The solution in Highland requires cooperation from the Highland Community Association, which charges the library $9,000 a year rent. Why not eliminate that rent, staff the branch with volunteers, and reduce costs to a bare minimum?

This economic dilemma presents a challenge for the Harford system to use its volunteers more effectively and to think about ways of expanding economical community libraries, instead of closing them to build new, more costly monuments to library science technology.

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