Winter 2009

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Library Stories and Library Statistics

By Senator Hugh T. Farley, Chair, Senate Subcommittee on Libraries

Winter 2009 issue of Trustee

Much to the dismay of editorial writers and “good government” groups, the State Legislature did not accede at the November special session to a proposed twenty percent cut in State aid to libraries.  Although touted by critics as an example of legislative “dysfunction,” I think that the decision to continue library funding was, instead, a wise recognition of the significant value of libraries during times of fiscal and social stress.

The issue is again before us.  Although 2008-09 library aid will be paid in full, the 2009-10 Executive Budget, filed on December 16th, proposes an 18% cut, bringing State operating aid to libraries down to the 1993 level.

I pretty much grew up at the Flower Memorial Library in Watertown.  Housed in a classic turn-of-the-twentieth-century library building, the Watertown library was a place of awe, and also of comfort, for a youngster growing up during the Depression and World War II.  It featured two vaulted reading rooms, and a children’s room furnished to offer, in the words of an early library pamphlet, “hospitality to every comer.”

The Flower Library is a memorial to New York Governor Roswell P. Flower, constructed with a donation from his daughter.  This is not the only institution recognizing Governor Flower’s love of libraries.  The original collection at the Flower-Sprecher Veterinary Library at Cornell University was, according to Cornell lore, acquired using a $5,000 donation from Governor Flower, in the form of a check written on the spur of the moment during an unscheduled campus tour in 1897.  Governor Flower’s widow later provided an endowment for maintenance of the library.

Libraries have proven their value not only to State Senators and Governors, but to successful people in all walks of life.  Andrew Carnegie, of course, lives on in the form of the 2,500 libraries worldwide built with his donations.

A century later, retired Starbucks CEO Orin Smith, who fondly recalled his times in the public library when growing up in Chehalis, Washington, donated $1 million toward construction of a new public library in that community.  At the library’s dedication in 2008, Smith’s mother said, “I don’t know what our family would have done without the Chehalis Library.”  And, yes, the local newspaper reported that the dedication event included free cups of Starbucks coffee!

Anecdotally, libraries contribute to personal and community success. Statistics back this up.  According to a 2008 Harris poll, 92% of Americans consider their local library an important education resource, while 72% go so far as to describe their library as “a pillar of the community.”  A study of adult literacy programs, an important service of many urban libraries, found that after one year participants achieved “small but meaningful” gains in reading comprehension, even when personal issues prevented the adult learners from attending the recommended number of program hours.

In today’s perilous economy, the increased value of libraries as a core public service, a vital education resource both for our children and for adult learning, and a place of comfort, would seem self-evident.  Yet, while more than 17,000 public school students in New York City lack access to a school library and a million mostly upstate residents live outside the service area of a public library,  the Executive Budget proposes library funding reductions which far exceed the constraints being placed on other education programs, and are among the deepest cuts in the budget.

I believe that the Legislature should carefully consider alternatives before accepting drastic library funding cuts, and I hope that Trustees will help me make this case both to other Legislators and also to editorial writers and other community opinion leaders.

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