I received the fundamentals of my education in school, but that was not enough. My real education, the superstructure, the details, the true architecture, I got out of the public library. For an impoverished child whose family could not afford to buy books, the library was the open door to wonder and achievement, and I can never be sufficiently grateful that I had the wit to charge through that door and make the most of it. Now, when I read constantly about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that the door is closing and that American society has found one more way to destroy itself.
- Isaac Asimov
As science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov presciently wrote in his 1994 memoir, I, Asimov, library doors will not only be closing this year in Pennsylvania - they'll be slamming shut. That is, if the Pennsylvania Legislature has its way.
Governor Rendell has proposed a 16 percent cut in state support for libraries. The State Senate’s plan slashes support by more than 53 percent in the coming year. The drastic cuts proposed in the 2009-2010 budget would force libraries throughout the Commonwealth to eliminate services, or close branches, or both. The cuts would also make one thing clear about our state legislature: they don't have a clue about the vital role public libraries play in the small towns and rural regions of our Commonwealth.
Public libraries in small towns don't simply serve as repositories for the collective knowledge and wisdom of many cultures in printed form - each one is a hub of its community. People gather at libraries to read and borrow books, yes, but also to interact with each other, to discuss local events, to participate in book discussion groups and numerous other programs. For many elderly citizens, visiting a library where they are known, recognized, greeted and treated personally is as important to their ongoing well-being as the proper diet, or an annual flu shot.
The library is one of the first places a newcomer will venture to find a sense of community. A place where mothers can take their children to sit in the company of other children, and experience the magic of live storytelling. Where teens can go to keep busy in the summer and out of trouble year-round, and fall into the lifelong habit of reading.
If this weren't enough, public libraries are great equalizers: providing internet and computer access to those who can't otherwise afford it, and allowing every child and adult, no matter what their economic means, equal access to books, resources, information. As Asimov describes in the quote that opens this piece - public libraries feed our dreams and nurture our possibilities.
Perhaps state legislators don't need access to what public libraries provide. The rest of us can't afford to be so cavalier.
This is an updated version of an editorial I wrote November 2003 as editor of the Tri-County Record newspaper in Morgantown, Pa. What seems remarkable to me is that, six years later, we’re here again – fighting to keep our libraries open.