Much discussion has been going on regarding the City Budget and how to keep in solvent. One suggestion is to cut back library services, hours of operations and staff. The budget deficit has come about mostly by the recent global economic recession crisis. This has spilled over into nearly every city in the nation. Finding solutions and balancing budgets are not tasks for the faint of heart. Recognizing this, we (as library supporters) offer for your consideration the hidden costs of taking away library services during such times of crisis as this.
Safe Havens and Study Resources for School Children
Oakland's school children rely on public libraries for afterschool time, study time, research for homework, homework preparation, access to Internet resources and much more. Only three public schools in the city have a public library. Limiting access to branch libraries will mean these kids have no other place to go after school to prepare for their school assignments. The reasons are many. Some kids have living situations that hinder study at home like parents with drug or mental illness, no light to study by due to loss or lack of income. In Elmhurst, many kids cannot afford a bus trip to the Main Library, so closed days at local branches spells a day without study. These kids often have no other place to go so they end up on the street where they are face to face with gangs, drug dealers, prostitution rings, street gambling and other criminal elements making them easy prey to fall victim to becoming involved in criminal activities. This puts more of a strain on the criminal justice system which is already over-burdened for lack of adequate police coverage. In short, isn't it better to give at-risk kids a safe place like the low cost public library where they can play computer video games rather than being on the street dealing or taking drugs and ending up in a high-cost public facility like city jails or juvenile detention? What is the cost for a kid turned bad for lack of a safe, free place like a library to go to end up getting involved with a street gang then shooting and killing someone? Our community recently paid dearly with the loss of four highly trained and valued police officers. All were victims of someone who took the wrong path in life in problem-riddled neighborhood. Encouraging kids with low-cost libraries to provide community services with many hidden and unforeseen benefits is a very cheap way to help the budget recover.
Employment and Educational Resources
Public libraries are also now places where many who cannot afford a computer at home come to the library to have access to job and educational resources. At a time when our economy is in such dire straits, is it really economical to reduce accessibility to the only place these citizens have to go to look for work or re-educate themselves to find jobs in a field they can get employment? It is incumbent upon the government to encourage economic growth, job retraining for the unemployed, incentives for new and existing businesses to grow and hire new employees and public libraries are here to provide these very informational services. Our flailing economy requires we have adequate library services to assist in economic recovery.
Many in our community rely on the public libraries for access to many community resources otherwise unavailable. Most current branch hours are only available to non-working people. Branches are only open into the evening one day a week and often close by 5:30PM on other days. Reducing hours and days open, decreases the chances citizens have to make use of the resources necessary that libraries were created to make available to the public in the first place. For example, finding books on home repairs and improvements so properties continue to be kept up at a time when many can no longer afford to pay for home services like plumbing, minor repairs, cosmetic improvements, or other repairs that do not require a lot of skill to master and can be easily learned from a book. In a tight economy, many are looking for ways to stretch the few dollars they have to maintain a decent quality of living and not allow properties to fall into a state of disrepair that leads to lower property values. The news is full of stories of increased patronage to public libraries by citizens who are looking for a job, saving money on expensive books, DVDs, video games, magazine subscriptions all available at public libraries for free. In the current real estate crisis, it makes no good sense to take away the major means citizens have for trying to hold on to what value they have left in their homes and personal discretionary income budgets by making it more difficult (and expensive) for citizens to accomplish this. Reducing library hours balances the city budget in the short term but bludgeons it in the long term.
With branches being open fewer hours and having less active security, especially in view of the fact the Mayor and Council want to cut police services, makes unoccupied public buildings like libraries a prime target for vandalism and other crimes. Five years ago when I became involved with the Elmhurst Friends, we had serious problems with trespassing. There were prostitutes turning tricks on the grounds, street people using the front lawn and flower beds as a public toilet, trash, broken liquor bottles and other safety hazards everywhere. Citizens had become fearful of visiting and utilizing the branch resources due to these issues. It took us years of hard work to reverse this trend. Reducing hours, staff and public availability to Elmhurst branch (and other branches) will only open the door for criminal activities like this to return. We will have lost all the ground we have gained. The costs will not be in dollars and cents. It will greatly impact the morale and well-being of the community. Can Oakland really afford that? We wholeheartedly say, it cannot and should not.
It is a well known fact that seniors do better and thrive in communities where they have access to social networks. Being on fixed incomes and often limited in their range of mobility, local branches offer seniors a venue that is safe, comfortable and secure to go to get out of the house, meet other people in the community and keep their minds and spirits active and involved in local social network. Seniors prepare the way for the coming generations and the public library is one of the few places left where social action between children and elders exist. At Elmhurst Friends, we have seen seniors helping young children find things for a school project when understaffed and overworked library staff could not devote the proper time to their junior patrons. We have volunteers to provide fill-in services that an already tight library staff budget cannot provide. Further cuts to library services will likely weaken the structure to where these kinds of community-based structures fall apart completely. Can our communities remain cohesive without adequate library services? We do not believe it can.
Is it not already too much that the City is considering the reduction of an already inadequate police force, the complete elimination of park rangers to our world class parks that will soon be staffed by OPD that cannot possibly come up to the task of patrolling and maintaining our parks while keeps our homes, city streets and businesses safe? These are other vitally important topics that need to be addressed as well but is beyond the scope of this blog's topic. The public safety is all anchored by the positive force for change that comes through and from public libraries. The Public Library is the cornerstone of the community. Public Libraries are the anchor that holds it all together. It is the last place to which a city should cut services when faced with serious budgetary challenges. When the city council and mayor have given up their personal salaries and high paid staff and other city perks for two years then come to the citizens and say we need to cut these services, then perhaps they'll better understand and we citizens will be more open and willing to listen to such ludicrous proposals.