Southern Style: You Can Have My Library

April 14, 2011 Updated: April 14, 2011

Commentary


‘I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.’
—Jorge Luis Borges

You can have my library when you pry it out of my cold dead hands, to paraphrase Charlton Heston. Yet Cobb County, Ga., commissioners did try to pry libraries from their citizens’ hands. They were churlish enough to propose closing 13 of 17 libraries—during National Library Week, April 10–16. The people of Cobb seemed to feel the same way I do.

The commissioners were shocked-shocked! when a commission meeting to vote on the closures was so packed people had to stand outside. Cobb citizens staged a read-in protest on the city of Marietta town square, opened a SaveCobbLibraries Facebook page, Tweeted, called and sent thousands of e-mails to commissioners.

According to the American Library Association (ALA) State of the Libraries 2011 report, the majority of people use libraries: 72 percent of women and 58 percent of men. Voters want libraries, and according to ALA, “Taxpayers entrusted libraries with their tax dollars by approving 87 percent of operating measures on ballots across the country.”

The rationale for cutting libraries is the tough economy, yet libraries mitigate the hard times in tangible ways. “Even as budget-cutters take aim at libraries and their services, more than two-thirds of the 1,000-plus adults contacted in a survey in January said that the library’s assistance in starting a business or finding a job was important to them,” according to the ALA report.

Houses within a quarter mile of a library have higher property values, the report stated.

Commission Chairman Tim Lee had proposed closing libraries because the county has a 31.5 million budget shortfall, which came from falling property values after the 2008 real estate bust. Some commissioners wanted to raise the millage rate, but others were resolutely opposed to doing that. Lee announced that the libraries would shut May 1.

“It appalls me to think that 2.6 percent of the county's annual operating budget is worth damaging thousands of peoples' lives. … As a Cobb County homeowner and taxpayer I can honestly tell you I'd much rather pay more taxes than see this happen. Aren't we the people the commission is supposed to represent?” wrote Sheri Beth Scovil to the Marietta Daily Journal.

The commissioners sort of listened to Cobb voters. For now, they will not close 70 percent of their libraries, but will use furloughs, cuts in all departments, and a few other things to limp along. The problem is postponed, not resolved.

Here’s what I think. This kind of thing is happening everywhere. It verges on civic suicide. Raise taxes already. If we won’t keep libraries open, won’t take care of teachers and librarians and paramedics and firemen and cops, we have lost our minds.

Cobb is one of the wealthiest counties in the state. It has a Triple AAA credit rating. Listen to me Cobb County! Raise taxes. Show some leadership. Do something rational for the common good.

Full disclosure: I am a librarian.

I have seen with my own eyes what libraries can mean, to mothers, to toddlers, to job seekers, to elders, to poor people, to rich people, and to students. I could tell a thousand heartwarming stories of community service and learning, of libraries as refuge, launching pad, employment center, Internet cafe, community garden, slam poetry zone, playground, theater, art gallery, tax help center, classroom, and town square. But I’m too mad to tell them right now.

Happy National Library Week.