A Library of Possibilities

February 20, 2011

“The public library is the only institution in American society whose purpose is to guard against the tyrannies of ignorance and conformity.” —Leonard Kniffel

Last night I made a couple recipes from a cookbook I borrowed from the library. A cookbook. From the library. Borrowing cookbooks is a great option for me because I am always looking for new recipes, and although thousands upon thousands of recipes are available on the Internet, I have much more faith in those that have not only been tested but also wrung through the editorial process.

I put the cookbook (Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s The Italian Country Table) on hold more than a week ago but wasn’t able to pick it up until Thursday, thanks in part to a 12 percent reduction in library hours in Fairfax County. Fiscal year 2010 saw a 15 percent reduction in the Fairfax County Public Libraries budget, including the reduction in hours, the elimination of dozens of staff and administration positions, and a 25 percent cut in the materials budget. The budget was reduced by an additional $2.7 million in fiscal year 2011. More staff positions were eliminated, meaning fewer librarians are available to help patrons. Plus, youth and adult programs were cut, the summer reading program was shortened, wait times for new materials have increased, and certain periodical subscriptions were not renewed.

Libraries across the country are facing similar financial troubles, and some municipalities are actually turning to the private sector for help. A company called Library Systems & Services (LSSI) has taken over the operation of 13 library systems in California, Oregon, Tennessee, and Texas to help them cut costs, mostly by laying off employees and cutting pensions. (Recently the city of Stockton, California, rejected LSSI’s bid to manage its public libraries in large part because of the citizens’ outcry against the company.)

Despite the last few troubling years, I don’t see libraries going the way of the dodo. In fact, 63 percent of adults in the United States have a library card, and library use is at an all-time high. Libraries aren’t simply repositories for books. They offer dozens of other materials, including audiobooks, magazines, newspapers, journals, DVDs, and even ebooks. They also provide free Internet access, computer software such as word processing and spreadsheet programs, and wi-fi, for those with laptops—not to mention a quiet space for research, reading, or reflection. Library staff organize book groups, literacy programs, summer reading programs for kids, delivery service for homebound senior citizens, and programs for the homeless, people with disabilities, and people who speak English as a second language. The staff librarians are perhaps any library’s greatest asset. These are people who can guide you through the huge amount of media the library makes available.

Two years ago, when we first stopped buying new things, Channing rediscovered the library, and he still makes regular trips there. Our public libraries are a hugely valuable resource, and (aside from a few measly tax dollars—an average of $34 per year per American) their use is free! You can find one near you here. Feel free to browse before you go; most public libraries have their own websites. The Fairfax County library system even has a free iPhone app. Take advantage.


Fairfax County Public Library FY2011 Budget, April 27, 2010.
Gordon Flagg, “LSSI Finds More Resistance to Its Library-Management Bids,” American Libraries, February 16, 2011.
Leonard Kniffel, “Libraries Now More Than Ever,” American Libraries, October 17, 2010.
Leonard Kniffel, “12 Ways Libraries Are Good for the Country,” American Libraries, December 21, 2010.
Kali Schumitz, “Fairfax County Libraries Feel, Try to Avoid Budget Pain,” Fairfax Times, February 2, 2010.
Kali Schumitz, “Shortened Library Hours Likely to Remain,” Fairfax Times, May 11, 2010.
Roberta A. Stevens, “Outsourcing: Turning a Negative into a Positive,” American Libraries, January 10, 2011.
David Streitfeld, “Anger as a Private Company Takes Over Libraries,” New York Times, September 26, 2010.



One Response to “A Library of Possibilities”

  1. Mary Bellamy Says:

    In addition to all of the wonderful ways that libraries contribute to our communities that you mention in your post, in Fairfax County they are also the only free community meeting spaces of which I am aware. Thus, cuts in library hours also significantly reduce opportunities for community building — and people wonder why so many are “bowling alone”,

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