Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Milwaukee Public Library Director Paula Kiely: Libraries = access, opportunity

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel opinion, 4/12/2011.

Say "library" and most people immediately think "books." They're absolutely right. But the 21st-century library includes E-books, recorded books, Internet, laptops, PCs, CDs, downloadable music, databases, online and paper journals and, yes, hardcover and paperback books.

Long before the digital divide, Benjamin Franklin recognized that information and knowledge were not just for the privileged few but for everyone, no matter what their station in life. Free and ready access to information was, and still is, a fundamental building block of a democratic society.

Our public libraries perform that function on a daily basis by helping customers find jobs, learn new computer skills, do their homework and, yes, find a book to read. Services are available regardless of a person's ability to pay - our mission is to provide service to all.

Recent studies indicate that Milwaukee's youth still lag in reading and math scores. Public libraries, as partners in education, provide resources for students of all ages and their parents. In Milwaukee, a new program funded through federal block grant dollars places certified teachers in five branch libraries after school.

This successful initiative serves hundreds of students each week who are getting help with homework and reading. This translates into better study skills, better grades and hope for a prosperous future.

As public library services are needed now more than ever, budget dollars at the local, state and federal levels are being squeezed. Gov. Scott Walker's proposed state budget for the next biennium could mean a 10% cut in library system funding for the first year and a flat budget for the second year, even though a recent Wisconsin Library Association Foundation study found that each dollar invested in public libraries returns $4.06 to the economy.

Reduced funding means cuts in library hours, fewer resources and librarians. Cuts to statewide library services for patrons who are blind or physically handicapped are also possible.

At a time when the economy has left many people unemployed or in other financial straits, public libraries are needed more than ever. Libraries offer free access to the Internet for job searches and applications and résumé preparation. These vital services help those who've had to cancel their personal Internet service and those who never had it.

Students continue to use the library for studying, and for those in online distance education programs, public libraries provide access to lectures, class materials and exam proctors.

While some libraries will certainly struggle under the governor's proposed cuts, others will find this to be the final nail in the coffin. Yet access to a wide range of opinions, perspectives and formats remains critical to quality education, critical thinking and our system of democracy.

What happens to our society when its citizens lose their fundamental right to information or find their access severely limited or reserved for those who can afford to pay for it?

Legendary author and storyteller Ray Bradbury ("Fahrenheit 451," "The Martian Chronicles") says he got his education at the public library. As we mark National Library Week, let's make sure that in years to come, others have the same opportunities and that our libraries remain open for business.

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