Saturday, April 24, 2010

Threatened library closings will have a significant ripple effect

Ever since Andrew Carnegie built hundreds of free libraries across the U.S. around the turn of the twentieth century, our public libraries have been a quintessential symbol of the American Dream, of equal opportunity and the potential for self-improvement.

When Carnegie was a boy living in poverty, his employer allowed him and other working boys to use his personal library. Carnegie was always grateful for this chance to self-educate and better himself (an opportunity that was denied to many boys of his social class in those days). He felt so strongly that after he made his fortune in the steel industry, he donated millions to ensure that others would always have the same opportunity in their communities.

It seems that the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library finance committee may have lost sight of this sacred charge with their recent proposal to close six IMCPL branches in some of Indianapolis’ poorest neighborhoods. The Glendale, Brightwood, Flanner House, Fountain Square, Spades Park and West Indianapolis branches are all on the chopping block as the IMCPL board struggles to deal with an anticipated $1.5 million deficit. Closing these branches would instead result in a $220,896 surplus—-but at what cost?

First, of course, we must acknowledge the 55 jobs that will be lost if these cuts are made—-55 jobs that will be particularly hard to replace in this economy, and that will have a ripple effect on the families that are affected and their neighborhoods.

But the impact of these misguided cuts goes much farther. As I mentioned, most of the branches slated to close are in low-income, economically depressed neighborhoods. Many people in these areas don’t have computers or Internet access at home, as so many of us now take for granted. They rely on their local libraries (which provide free online access) to search and apply for jobs, do homework, and participate in the 21st-century global community. The ripple effect could reach thousands of adults and children who will have a much harder time getting online once their local library disappears, broadening the "digital divide" that keeps many low-income people off the Internet.

To get more insight into the possible effects of closing these branches, I decided to visit my closest branch, Glendale. I confess that it had been a while since I entered a library for pleasure; grad school and then a busy job (and a decent library of books and digital media at home) have largely kept it out of my mind. But I always loved going to the library when I was young, and it wasn’t hard to convince my husband to accompany me on a quick trip.

The Glendale branch is located in probably the most well-to-do neighborhood on the list, so my report may not be completely representative. But for a library that is slated to be closed, Glendale seems to be thriving. During my visit on a recent Thursday evening, every computer station was full, and numerous patrons were seen walking through the stacks and enjoying the library. The happy sounds of small children attending an educational program floated through the air. My husband and I were pleased with the CD collection and found several interesting choices to check out. It was quite a pleasant visit and I was glad we went.

During my visit, I also observed dozens of flyers for just about every kind of youth program imaginable--tutoring, after-school programs, mentoring, social etiquette training, you name it--as well as lots of information about basic aid and services for adults and families in Spanish and English. It struck me that our libraries are much more than just a place to go online and check out books. They are also public space, a place to exchange information about community resources, a place to connect with others and learn something new about yourself and your potential.

As a staff member of MCCOY’s Early Intervention and Prevention initiative, I see libraries as a great way to reach families who could benefit from services that help prevent child abuse and neglect, keep kids away from bad influences, and promote self-sufficiency. If these libraries are closed, our efforts to reach these children and families in time will be that much harder.

The IMCPL board will make a decision about closing these branches as early as June 10. Public forums will be held on Monday, May 10, and Wednesday, May 12, at 6:30 p.m. at the Library Services Center, 2450 N. Meridian Street, to gather public input before the Library Board considers final approval of the plan. If these libraries mean anything to you and your community, if you value equal access to library services for everyone, please attend one of these meetings and make your voice heard.

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