Mention popular culture and libraries together and many will probably think of the New York Public Library and Ghostbusters. But this blog post isn’t going to be about fictional libraries – instead it’s about what’s really going on and why public libraries, more than ever, need your support. Most of us probably have positive real-life memories of visiting a public library at some point – whether as an after school job, attending programs, or getting lost among the rows of books. More than memory makers, public libraries are essential in their communities. However, in the state of New Jersey, public libraries all too often struggle just to keep their doors open due to inadequate funding.
NJ public libraries are financially supported through local taxes and are required to be funded, at minimum, at a third of a mil. In other words, a person pays 33 cents to their local library for every $1000 her property is valued at being worth. So a person who has a property that is valued at a million dollars will have $333 of their total property taxes go to their local public library. When you are looking at numbers and how much it costs to keep a library running, the minimum library funding is rarely enough. For this reason, many libraries also rely on donations and fundraisers, but this still may not be enough to keep things going.
Think of it this way: libraries need budgets for materials, programs, technology, online databases, staff, maintenance, and so much more. In order to function within the minimum funding, libraries have to make tough cuts. Like when any business faces cuts, the first thing to go is often personnel. When there isn’t enough staff to run them, programs and hours also need to be reduced. It’s a domino effect of the worst kind.
We need public libraries. They are not a luxury. People throughout our country struggle with financial hardships and public libraries provide free resources and services to help them find jobs and work on resumes. People for whom English is a second language turn to the library for ESL tutoring and to practice for the TOEFL test. Children use the public computers to do their homework and yes, play games. To someone who walks in and sees five kids standing around a couple computers watching others play an online game may seem distracting or wasteful – to me, though, when I see how they help each other complete levels, when I see friendships form, when I know they are in the library having a good time rather than outside in the cold or hanging on the streets – I am grateful.
One of my proudest moments as a teen librarian happened at a recent town budget meeting where people spoke on behalf of increasing the budget of the library where I work for above the state mandated minimum. I never expected to get teary-eyed at a town council meeting but listening to everyone talk, especially teens, with such passion for their library and for their librarians made dry eyes impossible.
If we in NJ receive the increased funding we need, that doesn’t mean we, won’t or other public libraries, won’t face similar struggles in the near or distant future. However, the support from our community at the town council meeting was nothing less than heartwarming and inspirational. People from as young as age 10 to those who are old in age and young in spirit stood up at the podium and spoke about why the library deserves increased funding. Hearing them also validated my decision to leave the corporate world and lets me know that I am making a difference, that all public librarians are making a positive difference in the lives of the people we serve.
If you haven’t been to your local library in the past week, month, year – go — go today – go right now. Most public libraries are no longer the brick-and-mortar quiet buildings you may remember from years past – they are the community centers of their neighborhoods. There is still, though, nothing like seeing the wide-eyes of a child who walks into the children’s room for the very first time and sees all the books she might borrow and read one day. Public libraries more than matter, they are nothing less than magical.