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Published: Monday, 6/7/2010

Libraries are an asset no community can do without

National Library Week came and went in April, and across this great land even Americans who are not librarians joined in the celebration of a marvelous resource. Here in Ohio, however, we do not necessarily count the bean counters in state government among them.

I was reminded of our libraries' predicament when I showed up on a recent weekday morning at the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library downtown to take part in a videotaping for the library's "Sight and Sound" video archives project.

I pulled to the ramp for the underground parking garage off Adams Street, as I've done many times before. This time, the gate didn't budge when I pushed the button for a ticket. I called on the intercom to report that the gate was malfunctioning and was told, politely and almost apologetically, that the library was closed and would not open until noon.

So I backed out onto Adams Street, drove around the block, and found a vacant metered spot on 10th Street. I was able to walk through the parking garage and enter the library after explaining why I was there, and we managed to do the videotaping on time.

But the episode was instructive and troubling.

Libraries across Ohio have had to limit their hours, reduce staff, delay maintenance, and otherwise pull back because the Great State of Ohio, faced with a financial crisis of its own, has decided libraries are not necessarily essential. Here in Lucas County, only the Sanger branch remains open on Sundays.

Ohio's libraries should be expected to share in across-the-board financial retrenchment. But the continued erosion of libraries' mission compromises the notion of an educated society.

The cutbacks would certainly have been worse but for the fact that state revenues received a one-time bonanza of between $5.8 billion and $8 billion, depending on how it is calculated, in federal stimulus funds, easing the pressure.

But only for now. A new biennial budget is due from the governor - whoever it is - next year. State Auditor Mary Taylor has forecast that the budget hole next time around could be $8 billion, with no federal windfall to soften the blow.

This is serious stuff in many Ohio counties whose library systems do not have tax levy support. Clyde Scoles, executive director of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, says that if Morgan County, to cite an example, had to go to the voters to replace the library aid it now gets from the state, county commissioners there would have to seek approval of a 45-mill levy. That's 45, without a decimal point. Not gonna happen in this lifetime.

Accordingly, Mr. Scoles knows he has it better than many of his colleagues around Ohio. A 2-mill levy, which Lucas County voters approved in 2007 with an impressive 68 percent majority, provides 48 percent of his system's operating funds. About 43 percent comes from the state. The rest comes from fines, parking, copies, rentals, and the like.

But the local levy is a double-edged sword because it allows our friends in Columbus to say, well, you know, you libraries have local taxpayer support, so you don't need our help.

It's true that public libraries get a "guarantee" in the state budget, a percentage formula based on state revenues. However, that guarantee was reduced several years ago from 6.3 percent of state income tax revenues to 5.7 percent, and was changed again in 2006 to 2.2 percent of all tax revenues.

It's also true that libraries are sometimes their own enemy. Ohio has too many library districts - 250 of them - just as it has too many school districts. Although Lucas County has just one library system, many counties have several. Cuyahoga County has nine, and turf protection makes consolidation - and the efficiencies that could result - unlikely.

But if Auditor Taylor is correct about the budget hole next time around, the current financial mess will seem like the good old days.

There are folks who believe a state's job is to pave the highways, educate the children, and lock up the bad guys - that's about it. You can bet that if Ohio's financial condition doesn't improve dramatically, the pressure to come after libraries and other presumed "luxuries" will intensify.

But no library is a luxury. Illiteracy remains a social epidemic, and libraries and good teachers are still any community's best weapon against it.

The Heatherdowns branch of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library hosted a National Library Week program called "Stump the Librarian." Students in grades 6 through 12 were invited to submit research questions. If they could outsmart the librarians, they won a prize.

Here's a question I guarantee would have baffled the experts at Heatherdowns: Why must we put at risk an asset no community can be without?

Of course, I couldn't have asked on a Sunday. The library is closed.

Thomas Walton is retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday.

Contact him at:

twalton@theblade.com



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