It's counterproductive to shutter a library at the same time public use is climbing. Pasco commissioners reached that logical conclusion last week, agreeing to trim operating hours at other branches in order to keep the doors open at the branch on Moog Road.
It's a smart move in light of library use being up by more than a fifth over the past two years amid the down economy. More people are going to the libraries to borrow — instead of buy — books and materials and job-seekers use the public computers to comb on-line want ads.
But libraries, and other nonessential services, have become annual targets the past three years as commissioners wrestle with shrinking revenue from falling property values. The proposed county budget had called for closing the Centennial Park branch to save roughly $290,000 by shifting current employees into vacant positions elsewhere and using the building to house other county offices now operating in leased space.
The plan, however, hit two significant complications: Protests from library patrons who collected nearly 3,000 petition signatures asking for the branch to remain open, and a little-known stipulation requiring state permission to close the branch since its 1987 construction was financed in part with a Florida grant.
More importantly, closing a library signals a reversal in trying to better Pasco's quality of life.
"Once you close a library, it's an indictment of the county,'' New Port Richey resident Gabriella Banks astutely told commissioners last month as patrons presented their petitions.
The Centennial Park library, christened 23 years ago during Pasco County's 100th anniversary, was the first branch to open after voters agreed to a new property tax in 1986 to expand the county's parks and libraries. Though it is only 3 miles from another library branch on Mile Stretch Drive, Centennial Park is an important location because it is the closest library to Trinity, the massive community in southwest Pasco that still has no branch to call its own. Combined, the two branches in Holiday rank second only to the Land O'Lakes branch in terms of public use.
Shrinking the hours at all locations except Land O'Lakes (state aid requirements dictate at least one branch to be open 40 hours a week) means most of the county will have less opportunity to enjoy library programming like reading, video gaming, story times, lectures, music and the other activities. It's a trade off that is far from desirable, but more acceptable than simply closing a branch.
The enthusiasm among the Centennial Park patrons illustrated that libraries are much more than a repository for borrowed books. They are de facto community centers where residents connect through shared experiences. It's why voters decided 24 years ago that bigger and betters libraries would enhance Pasco's quality of life.
Though the doors at most branches will be open fewer hours, commissioners were wise to recognize the sentiment from Centennial Park patrons and the spirit of that voter referendum two dozen years ago: Libraries remain a worthwhile public investment.