An article by Paul Edwards, President of the Greater Miami Chapter of the Florida Council of the Blind:
Our Dade County Public Library system is large and, for many years, actually managed to create some surpluses that went into a reserve fund. When the economic crisis hit in 2008, our county ended up raiding those reserves to support other non-library programs.
Like many other government entities, our county wants to avoid incurring the wrath of citizens by keeping the tax millage at its current level. They want to do this in spite of the fact that there are major differences between the money available and the budget they want to adopt. Last July with virtually no notice, a decision was made by the County Commission to keep the millage rate the same. It was then proposed that, as a way of balancing the budget, the library budget be
gutted. It was originally proposed that branches close, half the staff be laid off and hours of other branches be cut.
The response of the Dade County community was immediate and unequivocal. I attended a budget meeting in early September where I was one of many speakers who urged the Commission to find a way around what we characterized as an absolutely unacceptable situation. As a result of our action and much other pressure, the Commission essentially reprieved the library system for one year. They did so by using the last of the public library's reserves to meet current expenses. We are nearing the end of that year and it is unclear what will happen with the 2014-15 budget. The Mayor appointed a Blue Ribbon Task Force to make recommendations about the future of libraries here.
I am already scheduled to speak at a meeting of the finance committee which will happen in late April.
It is too early to offer any real notion of where we are and where we will be when the dust settles in September. We are about to lose Barbara Moyer, Manager of the Miami-Dade Talking Books Sub Regional Library who will be retiring in April. If we are not very careful and very lucky, her position may be filled by a person who will do her job and a number of others. This would be a catastrophe. We need a dedicated sub regional librarian who can concentrate on our needs and wants.
If this were just a Miami-Dade issue, I would not be writing this article. At the heart of the Mayor's attitude is one that is becoming increasingly common. The days of libraries are numbered according to many public analysts around the country. Most people are beginning to read electronic books and are getting more and more of their information from the internet. Now that we can distribute books electronically, why spend the money to keep public libraries open? We need roads and prisons and certainly don't need libraries which cater to those members of our community who have the time and the money to read. Most of our citizens, say the naysayers, are too busy working to survive to pursue marginal activities such as reading. Clearly those with this anti-library attitude are wrong, but their numbers are growing. Unfortunately, there is just enough truth in what they say to make them dangerous. More and more people are reading books electronically. More and more of our business is being transacted over the internet. Those two things being said, the rest of their argument is flawed and pernicious.
It is the poor and under-served in our communities that need and use library services the most. If we want to assure that the digital divide truly creates an underclass, cut out libraries. The poor go to libraries to get access to the internet where they must apply for work and check to see if they are being considered by reading their emails.
Young minority students must go to the libraries to do their homework and library programs encourage them to read and reward them for their efforts to learn more. Without libraries the upper and, middle class
will survive. Those at the bottom of our social system would be devastated if library services were cut. Let me be perfectly clear with all who read this article. We are a part of that marginalized population. We are already seeing the Talking Books sub regional libraries disappearing!
The rationale is that regional libraries can do all that sub regionals can do and save money. When we accept that argument, we are inviting our programs to be threatened. Our programs are not a part of the mainstream service delivery of libraries. We are out there on the periphery with library services for prisoners, books by mail and large print collections. If we give any credence to the notion that libraries are not necessary, we invite people to look hard even at the NLS program. We have already had questions raised in the past about whether even that program is justifiable. After all, the argument goes, more and more books are available in accessible formats. Why do we need to spend millions of dollars to produce books for special populations when there are a gazillion books already out there that "those people" could read?
It is beyond the scope of this article to launch into a detailed justification of library services. I could do it but the point I want to make is relatively simple. I have made it before and I suspect I will make it again! What happens to public libraries is relevant to those of us who are blind and only read NLS books. Our NLS program is
built into an infrastructure that includes state libraries, regional and sub regional libraries. If we start seeing elements of that infrastructure threatened, our programs can be next.
When I attended the White House Conference in 1990 on library services and people with disabilities, there were predictions being made that stone and mortar libraries would disappear by 2050. I am frightened
that this prediction is gaining credence. More than that, I am concerned that an increasingly divided society will do nothing to save libraries because they buy the specious arguments of many who see services provided to the poor and disabled population of our country as burdens imposed on those non-disabled Americans who ought no
longer to be required to carry the tariff that allows "parasites" to take advantage of a bloated government entitlement system.
I think it is crucial that all of us recognize that the fight of the poor and the disenfranchised is our fight too! Libraries are just one small element of a larger issue. But they are a crucial component of an infrastructure that gives people who are poor or who are disabled a chance to survive. Help that happen by becoming involved in what is happening at home with your public and state libraries!