Summer 2002

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A Lesson From Los Angeles?

by Dr. William Taber, NYSALB Trustee

Summer 2002 issue of Trustee

Los Angeles is a large, spread-out city that suffers from many urban problems. According to the media, there is a movement by San Fernando Valley, one of the sections of the city, to divorce from Los Angeles and to establish itself as a separate city. In New York State, we have the potential for something similar; as Staten Island periodically mutters about seceding from New York City.

You may think that whatever happens in Los Angeles is remote from the concerns of the small rural libraries in our state. Nevertheless, what is relevant to us about the Los Angeles case is the list of reasons that they give to support their petition to be transformed into an independent city: better public safety, better road and street maintenance, and BETTER PUBLIC LIBRARY SERVICE!

When we see that better public library service can be part of a call to arms for a major governmental change, this fact certainly reveals that the quality of library service has a potential for political relevance that is higher than is usually recognized in New York State.

Small town governments tend to focus upon public safety (fire, ambulance, sometimes police) and street maintenance (especially snowplowing) as their major responsibilities. Small town taxpayers are also acutely aware of the local school budgets. Support of the local public library is also in the mix, of course, but often its support by elected officials is somewhat grudging. The library may be like the poor distant cousin: recognized but not fully accepted.

However, the Los Angeles case reminds us of other bits of evidence which hint that libraries even here in New York State have more public support than we often assume.

Evidence of local public support lies in the history that most (not all) library budget propositions on the ballot survive even when school budgets are voted down, in the fund-raising successes that sometimes exceed expectations, in public outrage when libraries are forced to close, in the weight that is given to public library services by professional community evaluators when they rank communities as good places in which to raise children, to establish businesses, or in which to retire.

But something is missing.

Public support, when properly translated, becomes political support and power. The public support of public libraries is here, but many small public libraries don't effectively utilize it. The small library has limited staff, limited resources and too much to do. The job increasingly involves levels of knowledge, skills, and detailed work that is practically invisible to the public. The limits of time and energy may also conspire with librarians' rather studious personality types (which I share) so as to work against the kinds of action that is needed to translate underlying public support into explicit political success (read "budget, budget, budget").

Neither by nature nor by organizational structure are librarians, most trustees, and the library institution itself prepared to be lobbyists, salesmen, politicians, or partisans. Yet ...... increasingly, this is what seems to be required.

I have observed that two principles seem to underlie many examples of success and survival: don't rock the boat, or rock it so hard that others fear that it will sink ..... or perhaps ram into their own boats.

You have to choose which is best for you, but if the budget waters have been coming up steadily in recent years closer and closer to the gunwales of your boat (past which point you will start to sink), it may be better to start rocking it sooner rather than later. If the resources with which work have been falling farther behind the goals that your library knows that it should attain, rocking it now may send out some waves that will attract attention to your plight.

Roads have potholes and are blocked by blizzards and falling trees. This inconveniences people ... hence there is support for street repair and snowplows. Citizens are robbed and attacked ... hence people know the need for police. The occurrence of fires, accidents, and sickness likewise reminds the public of the need for firemen and EMTs. Schools with published low scores on academics disturb many (although not enough) parents. Obviously, the common element here is a threat of some kind, and failures in any of these protective services are embarrassments to whom it counts: to the politicians who determine budget allocations.

Traditionally, we have been told that libraries should take advantage of success stories as a means to educate the public and government about our services and its great value. I am beginning to think that we should talk instead about disasters, losses, and the horror stories of those communities who have been deprived of library services, and of those individuals who, for any reason, have been misled or prevented from using the resources of a properly equipped library when it could have helped them.

The costs can be high. Ignorance, mistakes, narrowness, intolerance, rage, desperation, hostility, and irrationalities of many kinds are all fed by lack of knowledge. Curiosity is muted.  The sense of perspective, prudence, and balance that knowledge helps to encourage is lost.  Sound familiar?

In this changing society, the big money that is spent for education of the young has a sharply reduced rate of return (read, "wasted") whenever the adults who are produced can not utilize fully the benefits of literacy, breadth of knowledge, and the ability to continually re-educate themselves -- available largely through the public resources of well supported libraries if they exist within reach.

Libraries in New York State, especially the small ones, are heroic stories of relative success by dedicated people despite pitiful budget support over many, many years from a wealthy but mismanaged and unreliable state. Such dedicated service without proper budget support does NOT encourage increased support in a system like ours, nor can dedication alone close the costly gaps that open up between communities ... and STATES ... wherever the public resources for knowledge vary dramatically.

Perhaps, the only road to appropriate political support for library services here will be through crisis and scandal and threat and embarrassment. Lessons elsewhere seem to teach this.

The San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles may or may not get its separate city, but I'm betting that they will end up with better library support after the dust settles.

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