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Why You Should Organize for
Your Local Public Library

Based on a presentation given at the Midwest Academy Annual Retreat, Chicago, Illinois by Laura Powers, Field Director, Libraries for the Future. July 17, 1993

Librarian Linda Hill assists one of her young patrons.

I'm going to try to convince you in the course of this talk that you should organize around your local public library. Public libraries have been the cultural and educational nerve centers of their communities for decades, and they have the potential to be motivators and springboards for community development and political change on an even broader scale. But in an era of budget crises and increasing privatization of public space, the public library is threatening to disappear on the people who need it most. To illustrate the crisis and suggest avenues for action, I'm going to use the example of what has been happening here in Chicago over the past year.

In Chicago, as everywhere, the public library has many functions beyond the provision of books. The downtown branch acts as a business research center, a resource for students of several public colleges, a city cultural center, and a government documents depository. The branch libraries are information and referral centers, sites for ESL and GED classes and community meetings, and safe after-school havens for latchkey children. Thousands of people who wouldn't be able to afford books or information on their own use the library every year.

In 1991, in a gala ceremony, the City of Chicago dedicated a beautiful new downtown library, the Harold Washington Library. This gorgeous building, funded by a special $144 million bond, was hailed as a symbol of the city's commitment to literacy and public life. But less than two years later, in late 1992, the city announced that because of its "budget crisis" and a cut in funding from the state, it would be slashing service hours at the central library to only 40 hours a week -- a 25% drop. Branch library hour, often evening and Saturday hours, were also deeply cut. Educational program were slashed by 80%. The book budget is dismal; and many of the computer terminals, part of a futuristic-sounding automation plan, are either broken or not yet purchased.

Basically, the money had been there for the huge capital outlay necessary to build the library, but when it came to the comparatively unglamorous task of operating it, the cupboard was bare. Early in 1993, the Acting Library Commissioner estimated that it would cost $3 million to restore hours at all the libraries to 1992 levels. $3 million had been the cost of the Harold Washington Library's roof ornamentation alone. For another half a million, the city could have maintained the Chicago Municipal Reference Library, a special facility whose knowledgeable staff guided historians, community organizers and curious members of the public through important information on Chicago's city government, past and present. This resource, a pillar of open government and democratic participation, has been deeply cut and its collection split between two locations.

The Chicago story is not uncommon. The 80s trend of disinvestment from public sector, which also hurt schools, parks, transportation and public arts, was especially devastation for libraries. Five of eight library branches in New Haven, Connecticut have closed since 1990. New Orleans cut ten branches this year. In California, a third of the libraries cut hours this year and 64% cut their books and materials budgets.

As we become an "information society," there are many who believe that information and knowledge don't belong in the public domain at all, but in the private market where they are traded and sold for profit. But letting information become a commodity would be to abandon a fundamental democratic principle -- not to mention excluding a whole segment of people who desperately need information and education but who do not have huge disposable incomes. It also cuts off our chance to use public libraries an open cultural spaces where people communicate and exchange knowledge, where they gather to plan and solve problems collectively.

Library closures and service reductions are political, because information access is a political issue. Information is a potent tool, particularly for outraged citizens who plan to use it to document injustice or misuse of power and demand that things change. In other words, information and community power go hand in hand. We can't let the public library, which is and could be such a valuable resource for communities, become a thing of the past.

o organizers are acting. To look at Chicago again, friends of the library groups joined this year with grassroots community organizations to mount an effective campaign to win back lost library hours. The marched on City Hall on Freedom of Information Day and National Library Wee. They got 35,000 signatures on a petition that called on the Mayor to restore the hours. Ultimately, legislation was passed at the state level that restored money to the library and let the city off the hook. Meanwhile, the Chicago Public Library Advocates have become a respected and consulted watchdog group for the libraries and are a permanent force to be reckoned with in the budget process. Now they're working to be represented on the Library Board and to have more input into the way the system runs.

Organizers can do more than battle to save library funding. They can work to develop cooperative relationships with libraries to tackle local problems like illiteracy or lack of health information. They can begin to move the libraries to respond to local needs -- for example, materials in non-English languages, or databases listing job training programs. In Washington, everyone is talking about the information highway, but how is this exciting new technology going to translate into public benefit on the local level? The answer is, it won't unless the public library is playing a major role. Organizers can help reinvent the library as an information center that is alert to the needs of its community, whether that means more children's books, ESL programs or on-line access to digital highways.

The library is a ripe issue for multi-constituency organizing in a neighborhood, and a good base-builder. It is an easy issue to get the media interested in. And experience has shown that it is winnable. Chicago is only one of many effective citizen campaigns waged around libraries. Successful efforts have taken place or are underway in Needham, Massachusetts, New York City, Baltimore, and Oakland to name only a few places.

As a national resource center and technical assistance provider for library advocates, Libraries for the Future is available to help organizer think about library campaigns and to provide a national context for the local work. To remain and become effective community resources, public libraries need us as much as we need them.

What organizers can do:

  • Use your public library. Find out how it can be a resource for your organization and your community. Make its offering known to those you work with, and turn it into a tool in the work you're currently doing.

  • Activate the library as a partner. Invite library staff to the table to help strategize about neighborhood issues. Or cooperate on a project, such as a cultural program or a health information workshop.

  • Make the library the focus of an organizing campaign. To realize their immense potential, public libraries must be well-funded, supported by local governments and responsive to community needs. If your community's library is underfunded, and especially if it is about to be cut, organize to make it a higher local priority. Or mount a campaign to increase the community's input into ownership of the library. Help put the public back into the public library!

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