Tampa Bay area public libraries have been in the news a lot of late and not for good reasons. Most recently, because of budget shortfalls, Treasure Island commissioners voted to stop funding the Gulf Beaches Public Library system that serves Madeira Beach, Redington Beach, North Redington Beach and Redington Shores.
Earlier, the Hillsborough County library system ruled that beginning in October, residents of other counties won't be permitted to borrow anything unless they cough up a $100 per-household annual fee. St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Hernando County have cut hours to save money.
I empathize with Tampa Bay area residents who lament the hard times that have hit this American icon. Indeed, public libraries — collectively referred to as the "house of wisdom" — have played a major role in the lives of millions.
They certainly have been central to my life. As a child who grew up following my father up and down the U.S. East Coast as a migrant farm worker, I always found the local public library. After work, I would go to these places for refuge. I was free to sit and read anything I wanted, at least in the Northern states.
Although my father would be tired after work, he'd drive me to the public library in the towns we lived, drop me off and pick me up at an agreed-upon time.
The public library that meant the most to me as a child was in Crescent City. My grandmother was a maid, and one of her sites was the Crescent City Women's Club, which doubled as the library. It had a collection of about 2,000 volumes.
I often went with my grandmother to clean the building, but I spent more time reading than working. At first, my grandmother scolded me for not working. Later, she encouraged me to read. Mrs. Anna Hubbard, the director, saw my interest in books and suggested works for me to read — Native Son, Of Mice and Men, The Catcher in the Rye and many others. She'd bring me into her office and discuss the books with me.
Because blacks weren't allowed to use the library, Mrs. Hubbard would put books in a grocery bag and let me bring them home. I took an oath of secrecy, because she could have gotten in trouble.
When I attended Wiley College in Texas, I gave up my football scholarship and took a work-study job in our Carnegie Library. Because of theft and romantic assignations, students weren't allowed in the stacks. I had the wonderful task of finding students' requests.
I had the entire collection to myself. When I wasn't in class, I spent most of my time in the stacks reading and just browsing. Another great thing about the library was that although it was on Wiley's campus, local blacks, who weren't allowed in the downtown library, could use it free of charge.
Since those days at Wiley, I've moved around a lot as a teacher and a journalist. Everywhere I've lived — from Fort Lauderdale to Chicago, to New York, to San Angelo, Texas, to Tuscaloosa, to Key West, to St. Petersburg — I have obtained a public library card. In fact, getting a library card is one of the first things I do wherever I move.
The public library is an integral part of the American fabric. In addition to providing books and other reading materials, it's a place for, among other functions, authors to read and sign their works and where afterschool reading programs for children are held.
A 1999 study, titled The Significance of the Public Library on a Child's Reading Achievement, suggests that above-average students used the public library more than below-average students; parents of above-average students took their children to the library at an earlier age than parents of below-average students; and students in the below-average group did not participate in library programs as often as above-average students.
Libraries also hold a prominent place in popular culture. When Fronzie, the "king of cool'' on the TV's Happy Days got a library card, for example, libraries across the nation reported a huge spike in the number of people, especially teens, applying for library cards. Believe it or not, the New York Public Library was one of the few adult things that interested the disillusioned Holden Caulfield. .
Ironically, public libraries in many parts of the country are in crisis at a time when they are more popular than ever. According to the American Library Association, visits to public libraries increased 61 percent from 1994 to 2004, and the numbers have continued to rise.
So what's the future of public libraries? No one has the definitive answer, but one thing is for sure: If the economy continues to tank over time, forcing municipalities to further trim their budgets, the value and accessibility of this grand old institution will diminish in ways we can't imagine.