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Librarians Rally to Save America's Libraries at ALA Midwinter Convention
By Steve McCann
January 31, 2003

Librarians from around the country packed a ballroom a few weeks ago in Philadelphia to drum up support for libraries faced with accelerating budget cuts. As ALA President Mitch Freedman explained: "We are competing for money with programs ranging from basic service to combating terrorism, but libraries are fundamental to democracy and communities… We must join together to fight to save America's libraries!"

The highlight of the rally came when librarians from various parts of the country stood up and shared what was happening in their institutions. Each of them then went to share the stage with the ALA president and to mark a map of the United States with a red "X" on the states where they were from. A librarian from the State University of West Georgia explained that their former governor cut the libraries budget by 50% last year, with more cuts expected. These cuts are occurring at a time when students "flock back to school" as a result of the downturn in the economy.

A librarian from Broward County Library in Florida announced that this past month their legislature proposed disbanding the state library in Florida. The results of this would mean cutting two thirds of the state library staff. One million books in the collection would no longer be available, which includes a nationally known photograph collection. Additionally, summer reading materials for K-12 children would be eliminated.

A representative of the Public Library Association reminded the audience of Arthur Schlesinger's statement that libraries were a "vital instrument of opportunity in the United States." In her home state of Georgia, patrons were using the libraries to find jobs. But because of a declining tax base, and a seven percent decrease in state aid, the public libraries have been forced to take drastic action. They've cut back hours by two days a week, implemented a hiring freeze, and adopted a policy of purchasing no new books this year.

A librarian who represented the American Association of School Libraries stated that in her home state of South Carolina, the "school doors to learning libraries are slamming shut." In that state the average age of books in the school libraries date from 1981, over 20 years old. A librarian from Philadelphia Public Schools also told of out of date books and technologies, and of zero money this year for librarians in elementary schools. She shared that her administrator, who is reportedly pro-libraries, told them they might be able to figure out a way to provide library service using books on rolling carts.

The director of the Queens Borough Public Library in New York related that his system has sustained 20 percent in budget cuts since 9/11. Last year, 100 librarians were laid off with 100 more layoffs required by this July, and there's more of the same on the way for next year. He admonished the crowd to not allow legislators to "forsake a generation of these kids."

Helen Spalding of the Association of College and Research Libraries told the crowd that her home state of Missouri is "second in the nation for state budget cuts in higher education." To highlight the potential for disaster this presents, she produced a quote from Mark Twain: "Every time you stop a school, you're going to have to build a jail."

ALA President-Elect Carla Hayden gave a stirring speech, to thunderous applause, filled with strategies and reminders of the duties we hold as librarians. "You must get to know new legislators and reacquaint yourselves with others. Schedule regular visits to remind them that libraries matter … We have a right to mobilize; we don't have to be quiet anymore! We have to make sure America's libraries survive and thrive. It's in your job description."

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