Watching the deliberations over proposed budget cuts to the Miami-Dade County library system, two things became clear:
First, Miami-Dade residents love their libraries. How else can you explain the torrent of emails and calls or the noisy crowds at public hearings opposing plans to shut down 22 of the county’s library branches? County leaders initially scaled back the proposal so that only hours and staff would be cut. Then they voted to dig into reserve funds and keep the libraries whole.
Second, political leaders are recognizing that libraries are a great bargain and an essential service, not just for Miami-Dade but for every community. As president of the Urban Libraries Council, I see this debate playing out across the country. Cities and counties initially look to library systems for budget cuts, then find themselves faced with waves of protest.
They come to realize that for very few dollars — an annual $36.18 per capita nationally — libraries provide the answers to so many of society’s nagging questions: Immigration? Libraries offer the English-language classes and citizenship materials that new residents need to become citizens. Unemployment? Libraries provide databases and free computer access that allow workers to apply for jobs and secure unemployment benefits.
Juvenile crime? Libraries create a place to engage young people in computer labs and a safe place to do homework until parents get home. Early learning? Branches provide not only the books to launch young readers but the knowledge that parents and caregivers need to help children learn.
Economic development? Libraries help entrepreneurs get started and spur growth in neighborhoods.
The best libraries do more than that: They enhance the quality of life in a city and attract new businesses that know the value of a knowledge economy. Creating the sort of 21st-century economy that draws new businesses demonstrates why it’s so critical for Miami-Dade to maintain strong library systems. Several commissioners expressed support for raising the special assessment that funds libraries. That could provide needed resources.
The library plays many roles: a place for seniors to meet, for caregivers and toddlers to read, for students to research papers. It can be a lifeline for an unemployed worker or those working on GEDs. It can be the place where the illiterate adult finally masters reading or the new immigrant learns English.
The library is, for many residents, the most friendly face that government has to offer. It is an integral part of what any city or county should provide its residents. It is also an essential support for that government, enhancing democracy through education and civic engagement. That’s important for us all to remember, not just in Miami-Dade County, but in budget deliberations across the country.
Susan Benton, president and CEO,
Urban Libraries Council, Chicago