A few months ago, I was driving through Bolton and stopped to check out their expansion to the public library. It's a beautiful and natural extension of their existing building that is proportionate to the community's needs.
The visit had me wondering how it is that the Bolton, Leominster, and Worcester libraries have all afforded to expand in a decade when library budgets are being slashed by dangerous amounts. The answer was obvious — such expansions were planned well before the current economic crisis — but this question led to others about the budgetary issues being faced by local libraries and how they're coping. I decided it was an issue that warranted further investigation.
Fortunately, my social circle includes many librarian and literary people who were willing to engage me on this topic. I spoke with both CMRLS librarian Carolyn Noah and New York Times best-selling author R. A. Salvatore, two people who had previously spoken to each other on the topic of library funding (see time index 2:54 – 3:52 especially). I was also fortunate to speak with Christine Drew for her perspective as an academic librarian at WPI.
The result is "Bad economy checks us out of libraries", an editorial that ran in Worcester Magazine on Apr 22, 2010. It appears almost entirely intact, except for this sentence in Mr. Salvatore's interview: "Would there be some equitable way to consolidate town libraries into regional ones?" Of the entire piece, this is the most provocative proposal and the one with the greatest potential to cure what ails local libraries. As one concerned citizen recently told me, "It isn't good stewardship to duplicate services in towns [so] close … even in a good economy."
Independently, PCWorld.com recently suggested that libraries should take this opportunity to reinvent themselves as not just archivists, but studios and producers of original content by local artists. This approach similarly requires a community-oriented mindset in which content creators collaborate, not compete, with their neighbors. Is it possible?
Whatever fate befalls libraries, we cannot allow such a valuable institution to disappear. From a purely financial perspective, libraries offer an unparalleled return on investment. Cutting their funding to save the economy would be "like cutting West Point from the military pipeline to reduce the defense budget" — it's incredibly short-sighted. These are not easy times to live in, which means making hard decisions. Let's make sure they're the right ones.