Friday, February 20, 2009

A smaller issue with much larger implications for our culture.

In May of last year, the shortsighted government in the town of Norton, Massachusetts cut the budget of the public library 35% which lead directly to the Norton library being decertified by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. As reported yesterday in Library Journal:
Last May, at a Town Meeting, the library received a 33 percent cut for FY 09, which meant that, since July 1, the library has been open only 26-hours per week...the library is among four that have been decertified by the State Board of Library Commissioners owing to a 35% budget reduction that severely impacted open hours and materials funding. That means a loss of $28,000 in state aid and virtually no interlibrary loan.
No interlibrary loan is a killer for any library but if your library also has 28 large in funding taken away, well that is just a perfect storm of anti-intellectualism and it is this kind of thinking that has dominated American political culture for decades. The residents are shocked by these developments.
“So many people are shocked,” Head Librarian Elaine Jackson said. “They just didn’t know that this would happen or could happen.”

But library officials have been warning of decertification since last May, when the library was handed a 33 percent cut to its fiscal 2009 operating budget at Town Meeting.

“We’ve been telling people for a long time that this might happen,” Jackson said.

Due to the cut, the library was forced to reduce its staff and hours of operation.

How does it harm the larger culture? Well, only a fool would suggest that it will have much of an impact on anyone outside of the Norton, Massachusetts town limits. It isn't a catastrophe but it is a harbinger of things to come. For years arts funding of all kinds has always been viewed as non-essential to the health and well being of a community. In Norton-a town I have never been to by the way-the thought process of "arts are a luxury" has reared its ugly head again. I know that town budgets are in trouble all over the county, state, and country but arts funding just continues to get trimmed down to a sliver of its former self. (I also know that the state of MA has increased the funding of libraries from $9,489,844 in FY '08 to $9,989,844 in FY '09 but that money has to be shared among all the state's libraries. More population, more dough for you. Sorry, Norton.)

How did we get here? The devaluation of education-or simply reading-in the United States is nothing new. We have mediocre schools and underpaid teachers because our culture doesn't value education. It is paid lip service-I mean who the hell is against schools for goodness sake?-but that never translates into full funding, or state of the art schools, or into truly pure academic just leads to cuts in a library's budget because, really, who the fuck reads? In the past, social values such as educational commitment, personal refinement, self reliance, or simple cultural curiosity were communicated across the decades by our institutions. Our churches, our schools, our social clubs, our workplaces, and yes our libraries used to help Americans if only to become the kind of people who couldn't conceive of cutting the funding for schools, libraries, social clubs, or arts organizations.

Instead, in the last half century, we have developed a mindset of suspicion and or resentment of "the life of the mind" and the people who choose to follow such a life to creep into our thought processes. We are our own worst enemies. We have allowed town managers and meetings to think it ok for them to cut a library budget by a third because the money has to come from somewhere to help balance the budget. I just hate that kind of thinking. What I particularly resent is that to make the kind of argument I am making here-that non-support of our cultural institutions by our governments is an irresponsible, backward act-opens me up to precisely the kind of charge that is leveled against people who live the life of the mind: they are soft, they are spoiled, the haven't ever worked a honest day, they are elitist, is a regressive and insidious argument and one which, unfortunately, has taken root in our society. It is precisely why town leaders would rather let their library sink into the ground instead of really making hard choices about how to keep a library open its state mandated 40 hours a week. Think about that for a second. The Norton Public Library isn't open even 40 hours a week. Perhaps the next patron walking through their doors helps to unlock the secrets of cancer or world peace...that might happen and that isn't a waste of time. Sadly, if he or she needs a book from another library they won't get it as the town meeting members (who probably learned about governmental proceedure from the freakin' librarians) have deemed the library expendable in the face of budgetary concerns. I am sure there are a million reasons why they just couldn't afford it but in the end, like all things, if you really want something to happen, you can make it so. No one said it is easy to fund our cultural institutions but just wait and see what happens to us as a culture when we don't.

Still, there is hope for tiny Norton, Massachusetts.
With proper funding, October 2010 is the earliest that Norton could meet the state standards to reapply for certification, she said. The state vote would be in February 2011.

Voters must increase the library's budget at this May's annual town meeting, Head Library Elaine Jackson said.
The patient isn't dead, just very, very sick. We here at Survival of the Book will keep an eye on the fight and let you know what's what as it unfolds. If you want to know more, you can find local write ups about the situation here, here, as well as the library's press release here (Adobe Acrobat required).

Finally, maybe this should be a clarion call for any of us who live in small towns to find out what the current financial health is of our public library? Why not pick up the phone and see how your local librarian is doing and if there is anything you can do to help? No one wants what happened in Norton to happen in their town. If you are reading this on the public computers at the Cambridge Public Library, or the BPL, or the Concord Free Public Library then you already know the value of access to information in your community.

As the quote by Anne Herbert on Norton Public Library website says: "Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times with no libraries."


Daniel E. Pritchard said...

This isn't a small issue at all. Public libraries, sister to public education, are the cornerstone of a functioning democracy. This country can not afford to place a premium on the education of citizens.

Anonymous said...

My brother and sister-in-law live in Norton with school age children. They are outraged and are thinking of selling the house and moving to another community. The town has a large number of retirees who oppose any tax devoted to the library or the schools.

Then these bitter old people wonder why they cant' sell their homes in an already depressed market, and why their property taxes are skyrocketing to pay for whatever services the town has left.

Sad. Shortsighted. And stupid.