Letter to the Editor
To the Editor:
I am a member of the Friends of the Marshall County Library, which is a terrific organization. We have interesting programs, but the main function of all Library Friends groups is to raise extra money for our local libraries. The Friends asked me to write this article. They didn’t have to ask twice.
This week is National Library Week. I know, every day or week in America is National Something Day or Week, but this one is very important. Think about this: what matters to you? What is important in your life? Your family? Your faith? Your ability to live your life secure under the protection of the famous “Four Freedoms,” as Franklin Roosevelt referred to them in January of 1941? He listed humans’ right to “Freedom of Speech, anywhere in the world, Freedom to worship God in our own Way, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear,” at a time when the world was a very scary place. (If you haven’t read this speech, I recommend it. Just Google “Four Freedoms Speech.”)
America’s libraries support a Fifth Freedom for all of us: the freedom to equal access to information for all, and to help with accessing that information. Because that has always been the cornerstone of libraries: information. Libraries gather sources of data, without judgement as to content, organize them, and make them available to everyone who seeks them, again, without judgement. We just try to make sure the information is clearly labeled as to source and date, and that there is a broad balance of information in any collection.
I am a librarian. That title is one that does not apply to “anyone who works in a library.” It is a professional title which requires a Master’s degree in library science, and continual professional education throughout one’s career. The MLS course of study requires studying things like cataloging and reference work, but it also requires studying quite a bit of law and legislative process, business practices, budgeting and accounting, grants management, and, in recent decades, a whale of a lot of computer technology. All this training is required by law, because the director of every public library system must have an MLS degree from a certified graduate program. I have one, Amanda McDonald Knecht has one, we all do, because we spend public funds. While the basic mission of libraries remains connecting people to information, the ways to deliver that information have evolved. Public libraries evolve with the needs of the public they serve. Books are still vital, but more and more information is delivered digitally today by computers, satellites, wired and wireless networks.
And here’s a big truth: not everyone in this country, not everyone in Marshall County, has and/or knows how to use a computer. How do these people apply for a job, when most companies require online applications? How do they file their taxes? Renew their driver’s license? Get pictures of their grandchildren when no one uses film anymore? They can use the library’s computers, and the library staff helps them
Library staff members are sometimes the only bright spot of human contact in a lonely person’s life. Libraries provide free meeting space for local clubs. They have the cheapest copiers and fax machines in town. They arrange lightning-fast access to other libraries all over the world, and arrange loans from those collections. The library provides a quiet, comfortable spot for people to read the magazines and newspapers that are too expensive for people to subscribe to. A stressed young mother home with a screaming baby might make adult contacts in a “Babies and Books” story hour. And her child might make a lifelong friend. School-aged children keep up their reading skills, learn something, have a snack, learn that reading is pleasant and fun, and that libraries are safe, welcoming places. Some larger library systems have enough staff to host after-school programs, serve food to hungry children, circulate toys, sports equipment, and electronic games. Most circulate videos and music, and many are now offering circulating e-books. But all these cost money, even with tax exemptions and group purchasing, For example, one copy of a new, hardback bestselling novel still costs a library around $20. So, bring back library items, please!
Public libraries are funded by city, county, and state money. Those are supplemented by federal and some private grants.
And all those sources of funding are disappearing. Amanda McDonald Knecht, the wonderful director of the Marshall County Library System, has been telling the Friends at every meeting about the painful slashes to the library system’s funds, especially the state allotments. That allotment is now about 50 percent of what it was 18 months ago, with more cuts promised in the current budget year. Mrs. Knecht tells us that she has cut everything she can, including the book budget, in order to keep the operational hours and staffing at the current level. But, the next cut might mean those must be reduced as well. That would mean a huge impact on the libraries in Holly Springs, Potts Camp and Byhalia, and the people they serve. The Friends, determined to help, immediately voted to cancel the plans for a luncheon which we were planning to host for all elected officials in the county, and donate that money directly to the book budget. (Sorry, folks, we really appreciate what you all do for us, but we’re all readers.)
And, the nation is threatened with the cutting of all federal funding to the Institute for Museums and Libraries Services, which means the end of federal grants to public libraries. It means the negation of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which means the end of most computer services that low-budget library systems can offer. That means no Wi-Fi at your local library, no quick Inter-Library Loans to borrow books from far flung collections (back to snail mail.) There have already been losses of several helpful databases which very few libraries could afford on their own: like Learn-a-test, which offered free test prep in so many fields, and reductions in M.A.G.N.O.L.I.A., the groundbreaking database which provided Mississippians access to expensive research sources. And these losses were at the state level; we will all notice when the local library computers go off.
The Legislature says, “There is only so much money to go around and so cuts have to be made.” And that is very true. But, as Franklin Roosevelt also said, in that same 1941 speech, “I have called for personal sacrifice. And I am assured of the willingness of almost all Americans to respond to that call. A part of the sacrifice means the payment of more money in taxes…No person should try, or be allowed, to get rich out of this program, and the principles of tax payments in accordance with ability to pay, should be constantly before our eyes to guide our legislation.”
American libraries are worth it, because their contributions to America are worth it.