When I was six years old, my mother took me to the library in Vineland, New Jersey. She pointed me to a stack of Hardy Boy books and said, “Pick five. ” That started my love affair with libraries. (Throughout my childhood, I have had a recurring fantasy of being accidentally locked in a library overnight. There’s something about being surrounded by bookshelves that really gets me going.)
When I was eight, I moved to Philadelphia, three blocks away from the Greater Olney Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. And summer after summer, my siblings and I trudged to the library, to enjoy the air conditioning and bring back stacks of novels and VHS cassettes (all duly censored by our mother). When Olney closed for repairs, we went to Lawncrest. And then Oak Lane. And finally, the Central Library. I think outside of college textbooks, I’ve bought all of three books from a bookstore in my life. The library is as part of my life as the the grocery store. (All this despite the fact that the overdue book fines I’ve paid over the years could easily fund a small hybrid, or at least keep one branch open in 09.’)
At the same time, I love Mayor Nutter. And I’m not scared to say it. I’ve been on the fence for weeks now, torn between my love of books and my respect for Mayor Nutter’s solid civil record. Thankfully, I’m not the only one. My heroine, Liz Spikol, wrote a great article about it in this week’s edition of PW. Difficult times call for hard choices, she writes. The Inquirer (Nutter says he’s quietly liked) and The Philadelphia Tribune (Budget backlash rooted in lack of public input) also featured articles this week that emphasize the silent Nutter fans found throughout the city. No exact, quantitative, logical reason for my support. Just a gut feeling that this guy here knows what he’s doing. And if he thinks something needs to be cut because the country is going into the worst economic recession it’s been in since the 1930′s, then damnation, it needs to be cut.
Thanks to Isaiah Thompson at Citypaper, I was able to take a look at some of the numbers involved in the decision to cut libraries. Take Olney Library. According to Thompson’s findings, in 2008 there were a little more than 130,000 turnstile counts and 75,000 items checked out. Compare this to Charles Durham Library in Mantua. A bit more than 30,000 turnstile counts and 20,000 items checked out. But wait, the nearest library to Durham is 1.2 miles away, Walnut West. Inconvenient? Yes. But so is life. Get over it. Maybe a 24 minute walk to the library will cut down on the city’s burgeoning health costs. How’s that for budget slashing.
Back to Olney Library. Three days a week, I sit in Olney Library as part of a grant from the Philadelphia School District that provides students with free after-school tutoring. Today, inspired by budget cuts and JFK, I decided to join Friends of the Greater Olney Library. One of the lovely librarians there was pleased, if not outright shocked. “Nobody’s wanted to join us for three years,” she said. (Good to know Phillygrrl is member #2, eh? :) ) Of the zillions of local mothers whose kids come to the library every day to be babysat by all of three staff members, one is a member.
Perhaps I’m cynical, but let’s face it, the library is nothing more than a babysitting service. Every day kids destroy books. Harass security guards. Check their MySpace pages. Hack into adult sites (if they still can). Etc. If the folks saving libraries are so obsessed with saving libraries, they’d sit in Olney library for minute. Great things happen. They really do. But anyone coming to do real work doesn’t hang out at the library. You come in, get your book and get the hell out.
Yes, budget cuts hurt. And I’d love to still be going out for department lunches at the corporation I work for. But we’re a spoiled city. We take a lot of services for granted. But services are just that. A privilege, not a right.