Save the Libraries

We've been called out for ignoring the proposed cuts to the Free Library of Philadelphia, so I thought I'd say a few words about it. I've been following the story (not terribly closely), but refrained from speaking about it because it didn't seem as simple an issue as was being portrayed. In addition, I think some of the library advocates have been too quick to assume bad faith on the part of city officials, and that only complicates things.

It's not an easy situation. Philadelphia really is looking at a $100 million budget gap this year. Our city really has gone from over 2 million people in 1950 to fewer than 1.5 million today. We just voted to approve a $400 million dollar bond issue for the water system, and without federal or state (unlikely) assistance, cuts really will have to be made. The amount of money that can be saved by cutting useless or extraneous programs, or just "tightening the belt," really won't do the trick. So from the start, reducing services in the libraries isn't a totally crazy idea.

I've been convinced, though, that it is in the end a bad idea. Libraries are an investment in the city in ways many other programs aren't. Swimming pools are important community centers (and I'll be very upset to see so many go), but libraries are crucial to even begin to improve equality of opportunity to impoverished citizens.

As Inga Saffron notes in her column on the subject, barely half of philadelphians have internet access in their homes, compared with about 77% nationally. In our increasingly electronic world, raising children without access to computers and the internet puts them at a significant disadvantage, and perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Libraries are crucial in bridging the "digital divide," a problem that persists especially with the crumbling of "Wireless Philadelphia."

This is in addition to the more basic, but also important, role that libraries play in communities; safe public spaces, free access to information, and encouraging and promoting literacy. All crucial aspects to a healthy urban environment. What shouldn't be forgotten is that spending on libraries isn't just an expense, it's an investment. If only for collectively selfish reasons we should invest in our public libraries.

I think that the geographic and socioeconomic distribution of the libraries that will be shut down isn't as troubling as it might be. Of the ten poorest library districts, only one is being shut down. Of ten richest, also one is being cut. That being said, there is a sleight bias to cuts in poorer districts, and the poorest neighborhoods are often the ones that need the libraries the most.

So save the libraries. You can join the cause or help raise the $8 million to save the libraries at www.LibraryFriends.info. Also, make them pay or screw the Eagles.