Sanctuary in the Stacks

Forget FEMA. Your local library may be your savior. That is, if it's still open.

| January 4, 2007

Across the country, our public libraries are grappling with a slew of threats: ever-shrinking budgets, closing doors, and the government's prying eye. Yet the public's need for libraries is greater than ever. Gone are the days of libraries as mere book lenders with a little old lady shushing from behind a desk. Today's librarians provide essential services to their communities, acting as key social agents by playing the role of emergency first-responder, social worker, accountant, friend to the homeless, and babysitter to latchkey teens.

Some of these roles librarians welcome, some they don't. Undoubtedly, though, ongoing funding cuts to US libraries will be a major blow not just to bookworms, but also to the many who turn to libraries in their hour of need.

Amid the chaos of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, for example, storm victims flooded local libraries to fill out insurance forms, plead with FEMA, and email relatives and friends. In Florida's Pasco County, library workers handle the overflow calls to emergency hotline phone banks. As Ellen Perlman reports for Governing, libraries also assist disaster workers, often providing much-needed wireless services and safe, secure headquarters in what are typically among the most soundly built structures in any given town. Last year, reports Perlman, libraries everywhere extended their roles yet further as seniors, baffled by the cryptic Medicare Part D, sought the aid of librarians in filling out the forms.

In San Francisco, like many other cities, the central library has always served as a sort of daytime homeless shelter. Aiming to balance the rights and needs of the homeless with the safety and comfort of other library users, the San Francisco library's main branch has begun to incorporate programming specifically for their homeless patrons, reports Eliza Strickland for SF Weekly. So, in addition to a warm, quiet refuge, the homeless can go to the library to get help from a member of the city's Homeless Outreach Team (though Strickland notes that these efforts are, in some respects, falling short).

As libraries take on these new roles, they seem like logical recipients of additional government funding. But as Perlman reports in Governing, 'nearly half of US public libraries either lost funding or received no additional funding in 2006.' That's despite rising costs. Moreover, demand for services is higher than ever. The American Library Association says that public library visits have increased from 500 million in 1990 to about 1.2 billion in 2002. One can only hope that library funding will soon reflect these figures and the crucial roles libraries play in their communities.

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