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Published: Saturday, 8/28/2010

Libraries must remain free and open to all

BY CLYDE SCOLES

The Toledo-Lucas County Public Library served more than 3.6 million recorded visitors in 2009. Nearly two-thirds of county residents have library cards. No other cultural, educational, entertainment, or athletic venue in the county can make a similar patronage claim.

The library provides free access not only to printed books, but to magazines, computers, downloadable e-books, a 24/7 Web site, movies, music, author events, exhibits, book clubs, local history and genealogy, rare books, Wi-Fi, GED preparation, year-round reading programs, early literacy programs, financial literacy programs, and information help from trained librarians.

Our 19 locations throughout the county, including a bookmobile, are dedicated to education, information, culture, entertainment, privacy, security, and civic engagement. The library provides needed resources to public, parochial, charter, and private schools, home-schoolers, and colleges and universities.

Our staff believes that accurate information equals better decisions and a better world, while we uphold the value of user confidentiality.

Some people think that public libraries are no longer relevant. They would reduce public funding of these long-standing institutions.

These individuals don't see the necessity or profundity of Andrew Carnegie's words, "Open to All," which are carved and forever enshrined above the doorways of the numerous libraries built in the United States by the late industrialist and philanthropist. Nor do they view the $2-billion-plus in construction of new U.S. libraries in recent years as a priority.

Perhaps these people see the new paradigm as paying for whatever information they need, from e-books, iPads, printed books, or mobile devices with Internet access. The attitude seems to be: If I don't need libraries, why should others? Why pay to keep them open Saturdays or Sundays or evenings - or at all?

"Opportunity for All," a provocative new study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, reports that more than two-thirds of all Americans 14 years old or older - 169 million people - visited a public library in the past year. From toddlers to senior citizens, Americans seek library materials and information to enhance their quality of life.

Toledo libraries offer lifelong learning opportunities, including homework help, computer training, story times, and job information and assistance. As government services decrease, people turn to library staff to help them navigate government bureaucracy, apply for benefits, and locate needed social services.

Since colonial times, the public library has remained the most democratic of America's institutions. Marilyn Johnson, author of This Book is Overdue!, calls libraries "the most effective levelers of privilege."

A visit to a library offers a myriad of essential life services provided in real time, from access to the Internet to information on travel, real estate, or economic security, from a good book to read to that special music CD.

Libraries are our centers of learning and culture. They are recognized as the people's university. Art, music, and history are topics just as relevant and sought-after as energy, health, and financial security. Toledo libraries engage these issues every day.

The Gates Foundation report identifies public libraries among the few community centers that address the computing and information requirements of citizens, such as young entrepreneurs advancing new business. Last year, there were more than 1.1 million log-ons to computers at Toledo libraries.

Given the overwhelming public use of libraries, does slashing their budgets make sense? I do not believe that Thomas Jefferson or Andrew Carnegie would think so. Nor would journalist Walter Cronkite, who said: "Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to an ignorant nation."

Some public officials will say they love libraries. But they are not necessarily committed to accepting them as a core service or a true civic value.

Still, public libraries remain one of the better uses of taxpayer dollars. The voters of Lucas County have repeatedly agreed.

When you visit a local library, you see librarians helping people who would not have any other way to use a computer or have a safe place to bring their children. I've stood outside the Sanger branch, watching adults and children waiting for the only county library with Sunday hours to open, so they can gain access to computers for employment, do homework, find a book, or have a comfortable, affordable place to work.

As schools reduce their budgets for their own libraries and shorten their classroom hours, children stream to the public library on weekends and after school. Retired teachers staff our homework centers, funded by our Library Legacy Foundation.

Some cities have not preserved their libraries. Surely it is a false economy not to preserve one of the finest community assets, which does not charge membership or credit-card fees or record one's attendance.

The public library is a place where we can embrace our tax dollars in a difficult economy and a fast-moving and ever-changing digital information age. The library remains free - and open to all.

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



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