Libraries Are in High Demand

It’s that time of year again. Time for the ominous beating of the city budget war drums. Now is the time when everyone realistically looks at the funds and what can be cut. As always, the Jacksonville Public Library is front and center at the chopping block.

During this last budget season, I read quite a few comments in The Florida Times-Union and Folio Weekly of the mindset that libraries are outdated, antiquated and unnecessary. It was distressing, and before it starts again, I want to address it.

I worked in our library system up until recently. My specialty is in children’s services, though I helped out in all the other departments as needed. As someone who worked at JPL for about eight years, I hope to provide the perspective of an “insider” and someone who uses the library weekly as a customer. And I’ll make it clear: The library is in more demand now than it ever was before. This is what I see:

All of Jacksonville’s libraries provide storytimes for children, from infants to preschoolers. All children’s department staff are trained in early literacy, and while you may not notice it, all activities are geared toward teaching young kids the basics of reading. Is this a much-needed service? Well, last August, I had more than 100 people attending my 30-minute storytime every week. Our infants’ storytime attendance had also exploded in number, averaging 40 attendees. That’s a lot of babies.

JPL provides programs for school-aged children, too. Many libraries host activities on early-release Wednesdays, and the entire summer schedule is built around reaching out to older kids. How popular are these programs? I was turning people away at the door when we had too many attendees, exceeding the fire code limit. That’s more than 100 people at one library.

For Summer Reading Club, the libraries provide small incentives for kids who come in each week and report how many books they read. Is this a service that is unnecessary? I can only tell you that at my library last year, we had at least 430 children participating. That didn’t include teens, by the way, who had a separate program.

I hear over and over that “books are obsolete” and “everything is digital now.” That’s nice. Did you know that digital content still costs money? E-books aren’t free, unless you like breaking the law. This affects children distinctly, because most teachers, when assigning reports and projects, require some amount of printed or book sources. I don’t think there are too many parents who would be wild about going to the bookstore and buying three to five books on topics like the invention of blue jeans or the science of soda pop, which their child will use only once.

In addition, libraries provide free access to databases. These are vetted digital archives of magazine articles, encyclopedias, journal articles and other resources. We pay for them so people can log in and access the information for their reports, projects, assignments and even business information. This isn’t Wikipedia; it’s the hardcore research. This is something invaluable to high school students, who don’t have a university through which to access these things but still require literary criticism to back up their essay about the symbolism in “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Perhaps the naysayers think libraries aren’t being used by adults. That is also a misconception. When I left the library system, I remember clearly that “Fifty Shades of Grey” was the hottest book out. I looked up the holds list on it — the number was 726. That means 726 people were on a waiting list to borrow that book. That number doesn’t include the (approximate) 96 copies that were currently checked out, by the way. I’m sure those 726 people would appreciate being told that they’re using an archaic service.

I can already hear the protests: “But the library shouldn’t be for entertainment!” Very well. Excluding the fact that every teacher, neuroscientist and psychologist will tell you the brain learns quite a bit while having fun, I’ll say plenty of folks come in the library to look at books on fact-based subjects. In fact, there’s such an emphasis on reading informational text, our schools’ new Common Core State Standards are going to start phasing heavily over into informational text.

For example, if you’re buying a home, you could go to the bookstore and find several books on how to buy your first home. They average about $15 (based on a quickie Amazon search) each. Let’s say three catch your eye. That’s $45 down the drain. Are you likely to buy a home again in the next few years? Not really. So that’s $45 on a temporary expenditure — money that could have gone into that precious first down payment.

Instead, you could go the library. You could borrow five or even the top 10 books on home buying. You can keep them for nearly nine weeks (including renewals) without paying a cent. Now you’ve done the research without dropping a dime.

The same goes for cooking, dieting, pregnancy, crafts, auto repair, DIY projects, investing and even job interviews.

The last group of library users are the hardest ones to quantify. They’re the ones who come in, but don’t check anything out — the computer users. You know, the ones with flash drive in hand, posting job applications over the Web. The ones who are drafting their very first résumés, a stack of how-to guides spread out on tables beside them. The ones who are carefully pecking out an email to Cousin Sue about dear Dad’s surgery. Or chatting with that high school hottie on Facebook.

And the ones like my friends in the children’s room. They come in with their tutors. They read a half-dozen books at the table and spend an hour or two working on homework or practicing times tables. They’re the high schoolers looking for a place for study group to meet. My crowd of 30-plus middle schoolers, waiting to be picked up. They don’t take anything home. But they are there week after week, in this safe, neutral ground. I’m sure they’d be sad, too, to hear that they’re using an antiquated service that should go the way of the dinosaur.

If your think JPL uses its funds incorrectly, I’d argue that there’s hardly any wiggle room. When I left, we had a hole in our ceiling, broken locks on doors, a public printer that jams every six pages, and at least three leaks. Nine months later, those leaks, holes and printers still haven’t been fixed. And it isn’t just my library. JPL can’t do anything about its computer and IT spending — the city decides that, along with other large portions of the budget. And if you haven’t looked into the fight between publishers and libraries over the price and licensing of ebooks, it will be educational for you.

People are using the library. People appreciate it. And the thing is, JPL can be better. It wants to be. But not with fewer staff members. Not by limiting the hours people can come in. And every little cut is a cut to the people who need JPL the most. The preschoolers who wrap around the hall waiting for a storytime. The senior citizen who just wants to read a few large-print books each week. The high schooler working on college application essays and SAT prep. The unemployed job-seeker who’s told at every juncture to post his information through a website to even be considered. And you.

Come by the library. They can help you find what you’re looking for. And all you need to do to keep it that way is tell your City Council member that you’re using it — and loving it.

Bourland worked for JPL from 2003 to 2011 in various capacities. She is currently a loyal patron making weekly pilgrimages.