There is really nothing bad that you can say about libraries. People don't get shot in them -- except in Agatha Christie. One runs scant risk of being knifed while reaching for a reference book. In these times of dwindling goodness, libraries may be one of the institutions still most valued.
So why is everyone trying to close them?
I feel personally insulted that to save money, this city may have to get out of the library business in six neighborhood branches, reduce its too-small book budget by half, lay off 140 employes and turn its back on thousands of citizens. Taking away institutions of such value to so diverse a population is more than sad; it is absurd.
I am remembering libraries. It is Saturday afternoon in the library in Lousiville, Ky. The sun is at high noon as I enter, but I will leave inn darkness. Barely noticing the hard wooden seat beneath me, I am transported: To an English country manor with Jane Eyre, where the characters sip piping hot tea and nibble scones. I am backstage with Paul Robeson as he conquers first night jitters to later triumph as "Emperor Jones" in a Greenwich Village theatre.
I am leaving now, but my arms are full of books that range from Nancy Drew's mysteries to the biting prose of Richard Wright, and the sidewalk squares slip unnoticed beneath my saddle shoes because I am in the gripping magic of the printed word.
At school, a wonderful librarian nips my wayward tendencies in the bud. I am shielding a "True Confessions" behind a mammoth Encyclopedia Britannica. My lascivious grin clues her; how titillating can the Egyptian pyramids be when you're 15? Her quick grab of the book and her sharp tongue are lasting antidotes. There really is nothing bad to say about librarians.
Another friend is remembering libraries, a one-room, segregated one in a storefront in Little Rock, Ark.; "Half the books had been used by white kids before and were marked up. We had books at home, but there were limits. The library represented the lack of limits."
People in Washington use the liberty from the cradle to the grave. The incomes do not matter. Library Director Hardy Franklin has found that while affluent residents who live west of the park use the library more frequently, less affluent ones in Anacostia and Shaw stay longer once they are there. That means students whose homes are chaotic and crowded use the library for quite studying. "Between 3:30 and 7 p.m., you sometimes can't find a seat," says Librarian Margaret Kemp of the Anacostia Branch. "We have to tell them to leave on days we close early. "That's when the community groups meet there and overweight ladies slim there.
Turning out the lights at libraries will mean cutting off the flow of informatio to retirees who go there to read the magazines and newspapers their fixed incomes no longer allow them to buy, for teachers who send their classes there, for adults who work at night and try to earn their high school diplomas studying there during the day. And for the lonely, it's a social center.
Putting the bolt on the library door is shackleing the self-help impulse. In the early years of this country, children whose parents could not speak English went to the library and taught themselves the language. With the recent wave of Hispanic and Indo-Chinese immigrants to the District, the library is an instant bilingual instite.
And what a disastrous message closed libraries send to our children. It's that we pay lip service to the value of books and learning, but we pay homage to money. We tell them to double-step, and provide the equipment to half-step.
No, libraries aren't supposed to close to save money. They're synonymous with access. And for those District blacks who grew up in southern cities where they had no access to a public library -- like Library chief Frankling, who said he couldn't use the facility in Rome, Ga. unless he trailed behnd his white friend -- a shackled library is an uncomfortable reminder of a chapter thought forever closed.
Washington isn't the only American Library system under attack due to higher costs and shriking public support. It's Washington Montly editor Charlier Peter's contention that governments tell us to cut back costs but don't reveal that we can save money but cutting back on government salaries as well. "Libraries are symptomatic of the larger problem of increasing Federal salaries eating up the ability of the Federal Government's to perform," he says.
But Washington citizens must rally to save the libraries. After nine years of continual reductions in its budget, the city's long-suffering library system shouldn't be singled out to take more cuts.