It’s inauguration day as I write this, and joy and hope are breaking out all over. We can do better! Let’s get serious! I feel it too–I can’t help it. Bidding farewell to Bush and Cheney is huge. Electing an African-American president is immense. I don’t expect President Obama to set the world to rights immediately, unlike the 70 percent who, according to an Associated Press poll, expect him to fix the economy in one year. But there is something that belongs on that lengthy to-do list of his, along with rolling back Bush’s midnight regulations, putting the torturers on trial and for God’s sake brokering a fair and lasting settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Help books. I know it sounds sappy and do-goodish and earnest. But do it.
Books are in crisis in so many ways. Take public libraries. During the Great Depression, in Mayor La Guardia’s New York, the public library was open seven days a week. Now, all over the country, libraries are closing or cutting their already shrunken budgets. The Free Library of Philadelphia is shutting down eleven of its fifty-four branches. Trenton, San Diego and Phoenix are just a few of the municipalities that are looking at staff reductions, shorter hours and serious cutbacks in acquisitions. In New York State, Governor Paterson is proposing a $20 million cut, one-fifth of the library budget. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg, no La Guardia, is proposing cuts that will reduce service from six to five-and-a-half days. And urban centers are not the only places that are suffering. Newton, Massachusetts–a wealthy suburb in a sky-blue state–has closed four library branches.
It’s not that people aren’t using libraries anymore, preferring to hang out at a Barnes & Noble superstore or do their reading online. Library use is up–as belts tighten, people who might have bought a book in flusher times suddenly remember this fantastic free civic resource. Then, too, one thing unemployed people have is time, and libraries are free, welcoming and comforting spaces: you don’t feel judged or like you should be buying something. And these days, libraries offer more than books. Did you know that according to the American Library Association, 73 percent of libraries provide the only free Internet access in their communities? In rural areas it’s 83 percent. For many out-of-work people looking for jobs, for low-income students who don’t have the Internet at home, the library provides the only access to information technology they can afford.
The starving of public libraries is just one piece of the problem, though. School libraries are shrinking too–sometimes there’s no money for books, sometimes there’s no money for staff and sometimes overcrowded enrollments eat up the space itself. Ideally, every public school classroom should have enough books for independent reading during school hours and also to lend out for home reading: vast numbers of low-income students have no other access to books. Instead, teachers who want their students to love reading are forced to beg for donations at websites like donorschoose.org and iloveschools.org. Then we wonder why reading scores are so low and why kids enter college unable to deal with challenging texts! And we are expected to cheer the return of PBS’s The Electric Company, which claims to “promote” reading by getting kids to watch a TV show.