Libraries try to get more aid on the books

April 19, 1994|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

When Carla Hayden's grandmother found out she had something wrong with her blood, she didn't call a hematologist, she called her granddaughter the librarian.

"She said she had Billy Reuben, and I thought: 'Who's he?' " said Dr. Hayden, director of Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library. "I had never heard of it. I didn't even know how to spell it, but I knew how to find out."

She found out by going to the Pratt's science department, pulling a medical dictionary from the shelf and scanning the pages until she came across this entry:

Bilirubin: The main pigment found in bile. It is produced by the breakdown of hemoglobin, the red pigment in blood.

Dr. Hayden's grandmother has the presence of bile in her blood, and the library helped reassure the elderly woman that it wasn't something to worry about.

And that, said Dr. Hayden, is what a public library is all about: free access to any question with a known answer.

This week, that service will be trumpeted by librarians across the country -- to representatives in Congress and anyone else who will listen -- as National Library Week begins today.

At the Central Pratt on Cathedral Street, there will be a weeklong celebration that includes a birthday party for William Shakespeare at 2 p.m. Saturday. The Friends of the Pratt recently gave the library $25,000, part of which will be used for billboards promoting "Solutions and Delights" at the Pratt.

And Dr. Hayden will join about 600 librarians, library trustees and library supporters knocking on lawmakers' doors in Washington today in search of $130 million in fiscal 1995 funding for the Library Construction and Services Act.

"Most people still think of a library as a place to get best-sellers. But the fact is that we have useful information, and it's our job to keep reminding people of it the same way McDonald's keeps telling you how great their fries are," she said.

At last summer's American Library Association conference in New Orleans, former President Jimmy Carter said, "The best kept secret in our country is what the library has to offer."

And in the current issue of the Utne Reader, editors listed the public library as one of "The Seven Sustainable Wonders of the World," along with the ceiling fan, bicycles and condoms.

They wrote: "Public libraries are the most democratic institutions yet invented. Equal access to information for any citizen who comes inside . . . bringing people of different classes, races and ages together in that endangered form of human habitat: noncommercial public space."

To help ensure the quality of books and service in that space, National Library Week was launched in 1958. Back then -- with rock 'n' roll in full swing as Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry ruled the pop charts -- librarians and booksellers were concerned that people were spending more money on televisions, radios, and musical instruments than on books.

About the same time, the American Library Association lobbied Congress to pass the first federal act -- now known as the Library Construction and Service Act -- to aid public libraries. The aid was $2 million in 1957. It hit $105 million during Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, was erratic throughout the 1970s, stagnated in the Reagan-Bush years and totaled $126 million last year.

"The Clinton administration has highlighted libraries as part of the electronic 'information highway,' but they don't want to fund the part of the act that allows libraries to rewire themselves and update their facilities," said Carol Henderson, the ALA's lobbyist in Washington.

"Federal support for library programs amount to about 57 cents per person, or 1/100th of 1 percent of the federal budget. Just to maintain that, we're going to try and knock on every door in Congress. It's easy for politicians to take libraries for granted because they're such a minuscule part of the budget. Even with that, this country is falling down on its minimal commitment."

Most library funding is state and local, but federal money allows individual systems to try different things, such as teaching mothers and their children to read. In Maryland, Library Construction and Services Act money has been used to finance the SEYMOUR computer network that electronically links the state's libraries from Snow Hill to Oakland.

"There's a perception that if you cut police or fire service, there's immediate crisis, but that if you cut the library, you're just doing without a few books," Ms. Henderson said. "But if you keep chipping away at them, you wind up losing the only place in some neighborhoods where kids can do their homework."

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