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We must preserve and strengthen our libraries

Libraries have come a long way since the ancient Babylonians cut symbols in clay tablets to preserve their records, and the Egyptians developed rolls of papyrus sheets on which to write. After the ancient city of Alexandria was built (332 B.C.), one of the most famous libraries of the ancient world was established there. It was also the first to have librarians. The Chinese also built libraries _ their greatest contribution to their development being the invention of paper (105 A.D.). Later came the invention of the printing press, and the rest is modern history.

The famous Alexandria library and others built throughout the ancient world are the forerunners of the great institutions we know today. Cities became famous because of their libraries, which often became great centers of learning. Civilization and the human race never could have reached current levels had it not been for the libraries that collected, preserved and dispensed knowledge.

Libraries are memories of all of mankind's experiences and beyond. Indeed, they cover all facets of the world in which we live and our very quality of life is enhanced because of them.

Yet, the St. Petersburg city administration and city councils past have ignored this and even allowed this great institution to decline to the depths of ignominy.

The library system has remained so low on the priority list for so long that it may take years for it to recover. The equipment is antiquated, books are either obsolete or insufficient, personnel is at a new low and the system has been without a director for more than a year.

For years, the Mirror Lake Branch Library was neglected, deteriorating, unpainted and ugly _ inside and out _ while hundreds of millions of dollars were being squandered on other downtown development and a stadium, which taxpayers rebelled against. Finally, someone took notice, and this fine old edifice of a glorious past is being restored. Although several new branches have been added to the system in the past several years, their adequacy has been decimated by the rapid growth and development of the city.

Ah, but we do have a magnificent "Dome" standing empty and silent _ that our children's children will be paying on after we are long gone.

To prevent this tragic situation from happening again, we must insist that action be taken immediately to elevate the system to its rightful place.

The library system should be detached from any other city department and made a separate entity, headed by a library director answerable only to the City Council. The institution cannot receive fair treatment under the present city administration.

A Citizen's Library Advisory Board should be formed, serving as an independent, non-political advisory group to the City Council and the librarian. Such a board should consist of community leaders in education, science, business, the environment, recreation, law. There should be at least one high school student, one college student and one senior citizen on the board. Board members would be selected by their peer groups or professions.

Immediate steps should be taken to keep all library facilities open seven days and evenings each week (half day on Sunday). Many students use their weekends to do research and prepare book reports. If there is not adequate personnel to cover the extended time frame, volunteers should be solicited.

In view of the shortage of books available at the libraries at this time, the number that could be checked out should be limited to a total of six per person. The length of time for keeping books also should be limited to no more than two weeks.

It does not cost to maintain and operate a library. It is an investment in our own well-being and that of our children, and the dividends are incalculable. Realistically, libraries encompass our every experience _ our environment and economy, our work and play. Libraries form good habits of reading and enjoying good books. But they have to be available.

Perhaps we'll never have a library as famous as that of Alexandria. But there can be no excuse not to have the best facility possible for our community and children's future, lest they face the doldrums of illiteracy.

James M. Dark has been a St. Petersburg resident for 45 years and is retired from the engineering field. He is involved in conservation and environmental projects.