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December 05, 2016
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Libraries: the great equalizers

One of the most disturbing things about hard economic times like those we now face is that the institutions that sometimes seem to be the first on the chopping block are those that serve the most basic of our common needs and aspirations. The privatization of Sullivan County’s Certified Home Health Agency, discussed in last week’s newspaper, which stands to remove a last recourse for home health care for the many in the county not fortunate enough to be insured, is one example. Another is the pressure being put on our public libraries, a phenomenon that has dogged the Pike and Wayne county libraries for some years now, and was more recently evident in a meeting of the board of the Western Sullivan Public Library (WSPL). (See “WSPL director resigns” in our February 24 issue.)

It’s partly a question of who we define ourselves to be. Is America the land of opportunity, or the realm of dog eat dog and the devil take the hindmost? If we are committed to the idea of equality of opportunity, then libraries are one of the last places to start tightening belts. It is here that everybody, regardless of income or prior education, can find the tools they need to educate and better themselves. Here is a nexus of information and cultural offerings, made accessible to anyone who walks in the door. And in an era of rapidly changing communications technology, here is a place where everybody, even those who cannot afford to keep up with the changes in electronics and media, can participate in humanity’s evolving communications, from hard-copy books to vinyl to CDs, DVDs and computers. When you’re having trouble paying the grocery bills, you may not be able to scrape up enough money for Netflix—but a library card is free.

That’s why, especially in a lower-income area like ours, the argument that we are entering a digital age is not an argument against libraries; quite the contrary. Libraries may be the one place that allows the poorer portions of the population to keep up. For a significant part of a rural population like ours, libraries may provide the only access to the internet, or at least the only access to broadband. And thanks to a $244,500 grant from the New York State Library Broadband Technology Program Grant Project, the WSPL has been able to markedly increase that access. This is particularly important in times of high unemployment. As library director Susan Scott (who resigned back in February), said at the time the grant was announced, “The digital education component is something we truly wanted to realize, as it is the one of the skill sets most desired by prospective employers. Libraries have always benefited by providing for their communities in need, even when in need themselves.”

Libraries do even more for the communities they serve. Libraries function as the hub for access to a great variety of free programs. Our youngest citizens are lovingly introduced to the magic that arises in the interaction between the imagination and the printed page. Older children and adults can participate in activities ranging from book discussion groups to poetry performances to workshops on cooking or coping with stressful times like these. In such interactions, fresh ideas are shared, relationships are formed and communities are strengthened. Libraries can even help to shape community perspectives. Our local branch has made it easier for residents to transition to more sustainable lifestyles by developing a collection of books and other materials on this topic.

In a country where an increasingly large proportion of the population is being cut off from goods and services ranging from health care to movie tickets, a venue like the public library that opens its riches to all is more important than ever. Maintaining a strong public library system cannot by itself solve the problem of increasing inequality in America, which has become endemic to our political and economic systems. But it is one of the few places that withstand the tide. Here we are all still equal, and can all be part of the human conversation in its many forms no matter how much or how little money we have. The public funding of libraries is an investment in our democracy, our communities and our future. None of those is something we should be cutting back on.