Shhh! Despite Boom, Libraries Facing Cutbacks

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MILWAUKEE, Wisc. - Your local library may be quiet, but it's still one of the busiest places in town.

For the past 10 years, Americans have steadily increased their use of these historic institutions. Now, in the midst of the toughest economy in a generation, Americans are coming in droves.

Milwaukee Area Technical College student Matika Booker heads to her neighborhood library several times a week.

"I come here, get my books, do my searches, get my studies done -- everything," she said. "It's the best place to be when you need something done, by yourself."

In recent years libraries have transformed, easing many concerns about whether they can stay relevant and up-to-date in the midst of sweeping technological changes. They've embraced the online world and now many communities are rallying behind them as budget cuts threaten.

Permanently Quieting Libraries

The American Library Association said recent polls show most public libraries have faced a loss in funding in the last several years. That usually results in fewer librarians, fewer hours, and in some cases, closing the doors altogether.

This fall, cities from San Diego to Boston are considering library shutdowns. That almost happened in Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and Charlotte. But it's too late for others in North Carolina and northern Michigan. 

"We're terribly depressed at what's happening in some places," Keith Michael Fiels, executive director of the ALA, said. "And the reason is the impact it will have on the people in those communities."

Milwaukee, Wisc., has considered closing libraries in the past. When the city lost funding on various fronts last year, the public library system was forced to cut $1.7 million from its annual budget.

Milwaukee Public Library Director Paula Kiely said the community rose up to save their libraries.

"The message we heard was, 'Cut the hours, but just don't cut the libraries,'" she said.

So the city kept all all twelve branch libraries and its central library open but cut back on evening hours and shut down on one weekend day at each location.

Losing the Public 'Safety Net'

The loss in hours has proved to be an inconvenience for many. But what concerns librarians more is those who directly depend on their library. 

"The public library is really that safety net, that bit of insurance," Kiely said. "You don't have to buy information....for those of us that use computers every day, we take that for granted. That's another tool--my computer, my iPhone, or my PDA."

"But for a lot of people, they don't own these things or they don't have access for a job," she explained. "And so the public library becomes one of the few sources of that technology for them."

Indeed, the ALA said two-thirds of libraries nationwide now help patrons with online job hunting. Seventy percent provide the only free access to computers and the Internet in some communities.

"When you think about it, a library is the only government entity where the doors are open all the time,"  Fiels said. "There are people there to help you. It has access to virtually all the information in the entire world."

Keeping the Lights On

Fiels said public officials are beginning to appreciate libraries in a new way, thanks to citizens pushing to keep doors open and lights on. 

There's also a growing recognition that libraries are critical to the next generation. Milwaukee mom Ruby Fountain is one parent that gets it. Fountain brings her three children every day after school.

"They love the library," she said."They think this is just the best place in the world because they truly love books." 

Fountain's kids also love the computer. 

"I think it's more resourceful to come to the library than to pay for the Internet," she explained.

In a changing world, library advocates say their commitment to the young remains unchanged,  

"I think that libraries' role in our education system is totally underrated," Fiels said. "You've got a kid in school for six hours a day. You've got another 18 hours, and the question is the degree to which someone becomes an independent learner."

The end goal for now then is helping communities not just thrive in today's economic realities but thrive in a 21st-century world where change is the new normal.

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