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Libraries need to stay public

I have fond memories of the public library of my youth. It was housed in a beautiful Andrew Carnegie building from 1910 and sat right next to the U.S. Post Office at the heart of a city of 22,000.

The architecture included a circular marble staircase leading from the main floor to the children's library upstairs where the matronly librarian shushed us frequently when the conversations became too loud.

It got plenty of use. There were no media centers in the elementary schools, which meant a trip to the public library if you wanted to peruse something more substantive than the offerings on the bookshelf in the back of the classroom. It had summer reading programs and, 25 years before the Internet, it's also where you went to peruse out-of-town newspapers that hung on a rack via long wooden poles along the center fold of the paper. Remember those?

Love for the library is shared by youths today, but it goes beyond the printed word. In Pasco, for instance, there are battles of the bands, video game contests, book-themed parties, story times for preschoolers, movie matinees, art displays and open poetry readings. In Hernando, children 12 to 17 can express themselves in organized rock jams, painting and photography sessions.

For a more somber example, you could ask Betty Depew, a 14-year member of the Friends of the Library of Hernando County. She helped collect 600 petition signatures from people objecting to the idea of privatizing Hernando's library system. Last week, she relayed a conversation she had with one library patron — a boy she estimated to be 8 years old.

"You know I'm very poor and my family is very poor and without the public library I would not have books and I certainly would not be able to use a computer,'' Depew recalled the child's words for Hernando County commissioners.

It is a vulnerable population. As the economy tanks, library use goes up. Pasco County has reported increases in the number of card holders, people borrowing materials and patrons using Internet access for job searches.

Depew spoke because library systems in both counties have caught the attention of Library Systems & Services LLC, (LSSI) a Maryland company making a pitch to privatize services. It currently runs 14 library systems in the United States and promises cost-savings with increased operating hours.

Hernando considered it, but not for long, as part of its effort to cull up to $10 million from the county budget. Last week, commissioners unanimously resolved to cease discussions to hire a private company to run its libraries.

The private sector does play a significant role in library operations, but not in trying to squeeze salaries, trim staff, cut benefits and hiring less-qualified people in order to improve the management company's bottom line. Rather, it's the volunteer time and fundraising from the nonprofit groups, Friends of the Library.

Hernando County has 52 active volunteers at its Friends-run book store that helps raise tens of thousands of dollars annually for the library. In Pasco, the Friends of the Library volunteers donated more than 10,000 hours of time and nearly $100,000 to the library last year.

"Every single program we offer is paid for by Friends of the Library — programs for teens, kids, the summer reading, everything," said Pasco Libraries Director Linda Allen.

In other locations, Friends of the Library members have told local governments they will not donate their time to a for-profit venture. Hernando volunteers shared that same message with the county. Likewise, the Friends groups are nonprofit agencies and tax codes prohibit them from donating to for-profit entities.

Still, LSSI promised a $1-million savings to Pasco County, more spending on materials and the ability to keep the doors open on Sundays and Mondays. (This month the county agreed to close the libraries on Mondays because of a hiring freeze that left 17 library positions vacant to save $472,000.)

The company made its pitch in a March 9 letter to Pasco Commission Chairman Jack Mariano.

The letter "is probably in my blue recycling bin," Mariano said. "I have no interest in that."

Good move. Both counties are wise to turn the page on turning over their libraries to the private sector.

Libraries need to stay public 04/18/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 18, 2009 4:31am]
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