Sanctuary in the Stacks

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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