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Published: Saturday, 5/19/2001

If funding's cut, library mission will suffer

BY CLYDE SCOLES

In the worst of times, during the deepest of America's Great Depression, not one public library in Ohio shut its doors. Many public libraries struggled just to be open a few hours a day. They survived the Depression and World War II and, through strong partnerships with educational institutions at all levels, because libraries are “schools outside the school” or “the people's university,” serving millions of Ohioans of every age.

Libraries are the extension of the quality of education in the community. A Blade editorial on May 19, 1993 stated it well: “If taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society, what better symbolizes our civilization than our libraries?”

Today, in the United States public libraries outnumber McDonalds. That “mcnugget” of information should alone signal the importance that Americans attach to this institution. As the most truly democratic public institution in America, public libraries are a good exchange of tax dollars for the ability to borrow materials, use homework centers, utilize the vast global resources of the Internet, or tap the expertise of trained library staff.

Last year in Lucas County, our fellow citizens paid the library more than 3.5 million visits, asked 76,000 reference questions, and borrowed more than 6 million items. If the public had to purchase those services, the cost would total millions of dollars.

The Ohio General Assembly recognized the value and importance of public libraries in 1986, when it earmarked 6.3 percent of the state's annual income tax revenue for public libraries, making Ohio a model for virtually every other state in the union. In subsequent years, Ohio's public libraries thrived despite a reduction in state support to 5.7 percent in 1993.

The concept of earmarking a percentage of state income tax revenue for libraries incorporates a fair and equitable funding base for Ohio public libraries, allowing for growth - and shrinkage - depending on the ebb and flow of state support as the economy fluctuates.

Perhaps Governor Taft has forgotten the state's commitment and promise to excellence in libraries in the stress of competing budgetary interests. What other explanation could there be for his proposal to cut the primary source of income to 250 public library districts?

The governor's proposed cuts drastically reduce library funding by removing more than $100 million during an 18-month period. Ohio libraries, now used more than ever before, will be forced to reduce the purchase of books, reduce programs for children and adults, reduce hours of service, and reduce staff, all contributing sadly to a downward spiral in library services.

It is literally like ripping the pages out of a book. If we want a community where everyone has hope and opportunity to succeed, the public library, according to Andrew Carnegie, is the place to begin.

In Lucas County, the public library provides after-school homework assistance, computer access, volunteer tutors in math and reading, special science programs, after-school reading programs, and a full range of multi-cultural programs. The Library plays a very significant and vital educational role. Removing needed funds for public libraries only compounds the persistent problem of providing sound and equitable funding for the education of our children.

For example, libraries provide family literacy programming, making a solid investment in the future development of the family, the library, the state, and the nation. Family literacy programs help parents or caregivers function successfully as the first and foremost teachers of their children.

The proposed cuts in library funding would make it very difficult to continue such programs at extraordinarily difficult times for Toledo's children. Our goal has been to help them to be ready for the information-oriented world they will face.

It is also interesting that the California Bureau of Prisons uses third grade reading scores to predict the number of needed prison beds. I suppose one can understand this when 70 percent of prisoners are deemed illiterate in their verbal and numerical abilities to function in today's legal economy. About 50 percent of them have not completed high school.

Consequently, Ohio's public libraries are working vigorously with their myriad of programs and services to inspire as well as keep people reading and coaxing young people to develop the habit.

All over Ohio, public libraries are focused and committed to children from preschool to high school. Through a variety of school-public library partnerships, libraries strive continuously to prepare young readers and library users for the increasingly competitive world of today and tomorrow.

If the governor's objective is to strengthen elementary and secondary education in this state and get Ohio reading with a $50 million program, it defies logic to reduce library funding and pretend that it is helping to solve the problem. Ohio libraries have excelled in their commitment to quality education and learning because the statutory library funding formula in place for many years is fair, equitable, and predictable.

Governor Taft and all Ohioans should realize that punishing Ohio's truly excellent public library system is hardly an effective way to improve Ohio's public schools.

The Ohio Library community is currently working closely with the Ohio Senate with a (draft) Library Recovery Amendment. This is a very simple and straightforward piece of legislation. It provides the dollars the governor wishes to take from the Library's 5.7 percent earmarked personal income tax fund, but returns to the public libraries any additional growth in the income tax.

Clyde Scoles is director of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.



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