Sunday , 23 November 2014
Breaking News

Don’t stay quiet on funding our libraries

It’s time for the usual rule of thumb when it comes to libraries – “Quiet, please!” – to be thrown out the window. It’s time to be loud and clear about the needs of our community libraries, which are in grave danger of being under funded into obsolescence.

The Coalition to Save Our Libraries: Because Intelligence is Priceless is doing just that. The Coalition, comprised of multiple partners including Community Advocates for Libraries in Miami, Friends of the Miami Dade Public Library System, League of Women Voters, the Miami- Dade Public Library Advisory Board, Sustainable Miami, Time 2 Rally, the Village of Pinecrest, as well as volunteers from a vast array of social and community organizations, believes that $64 million is the level the Miami Dade Public Library System (MDPLS) must have to maintain and improve library services. This allows for real growth – including new technology centers – while protecting and enhancing the library’s core ability to provide access. The cost to the averagehomeowner will be minimal, an increase of less than $20 a year for every $200,000 of assessed value.

The Coalition was formed as a response to Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s blatant unwillingness to fund the system at an appropriate level. He recently instructed Library Director Raymond Santiago to present him with two budgets at the final meeting of the Mayor’s Library Blue Ribbon Task Force: a $30 million and a $50 million per year scenario. Both options are grossly inadequate.

Notably, both scenarios ignore the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Task Force, which included consultants, experts, and polls, solicited by the Mayor to advise him. The Task Force did not recommend or endorse either of these levels of funding; it instead made recommendations for growth and enhancements. However, the Mayor changed the ending, because he wants a different result. He is determined to find “efficiencies” in MDPLS, and by efficiencies, he means cuts. Those cuts mean loss of services, programs, materials and staff for a system that has already been gutted by four years of similar “efficiencies.”

The list of lost programs, staff and resources is already lengthy, and will only grow if either of the proposed budgets is ultimately accepted. Remember S.M.A.R.T.? Science, Math and Reading Tutoring for children ages K-12? These free one-hour sessions were provided by certified school teachers on Saturdays at all branches and were always filled to capacity. S.M.A.R.T vanished in 2011. Remember when most branches were open six days a week, at a schedule which meant working parents and students alike could take advantage of all the resources provided? You can expect this to vanish as well. The entire materials budget was once around $7 million and is now hovering around $1.2 million; an embarrassingly low sum to provide books, e-books and magazines for children and adults, subscriptions to research databases and DVDs.

But why should we care? Aren’t libraries a charming tourist relic of times gone by? Why should we fund them at all? Just like most institutions that pre-date the digital age, libraries are fighting against the perception that they no longer are relevant. Naysayers allege if all content exists in virtual form, a place to house them is not necessary.

Contrary to popular thinking, the Internet and digital age have only made libraries more necessary than ever. The core of the library’s mission is access. Libraries facilitate the connection between access and knowledge building. They provide books for children, opening their eyes to new worlds and creating future leaders. They provide research help for students, ensuring academic success.

They provide connection and contact for everyone. They provide links for downloadable ebooks, magazines, movies and music. They are critical, electronic outposts for economic growth for all — facilitating job searches and applications, and helping patrons learn skill sets to succeed in those jobs.

But all the technology, all the improvement, all these connections take time, money and patience, things many governing officials of this county have frequently been unwilling to give libraries.

The $30 million budget should not even be open for discussion. It is a travesty, a gutting of the system. Yes, all branches will remain “open,” but almost 20 branches will be open only 16 hours — four hours per day, four days a week. Trained librarians will be shown the door, with part-time volunteer staff filling in. Patrons will be limited in the amount of items they can check out — assuming those items can be purchased in the first place since the materials budget will have to be reduced even more. In other words, the $30 million proposal is a death sentence for MDPLS, defunding it into irrelevance and obscurity.

The $50 million proposal is supposed to support an abridged version of the status quo and yet somehow also make room for enhancements. How is this possible? The answer is via cuts — librarians will still be laid off, programs will be reduced or eliminated, there will still be branches open 16 hours a week and the materials budget will still continue to limp along at its anemic pace, with no room for growth to meet the demands of this community. The proposal calls for new enhancement options, such as library technology centers and Makerspaces, but at the cost of core services.

As a palliative measure, Mayor Gimenez is skirting around the edges of offering a “straw poll” at some point in the late summer to gauge the community’s support for additional taxes for libraries, parks and other cultural organizations. There are multiple problems with this suggestion, including the fact that the results of last summer’s straw poll for the Pet’s Trust were blatantly disregarded once the Mayor found he did not like the outcome; there is now a huge lack of trust and confidence on the part of voters that the Mayor and some commissioners will keep their word. Second, the millage rate for the libraries is set in July — a straw poll vote in August will be too late to be of any use.

We cannot wait for polls or for time to pass. Now is the moment to speak as loudly as possible about the libraries – contact your county commissioner, contact the Mayor and demand that they fully fund the libraries at $64 million. To deny this access to all is unacceptable because an intelligent community is priceless; the true cost of losing our libraries is too much for our children and our county to pay.

Learn more about how you can join the Coalition online at www.facebook.com/saveMDClibraries or Twitter at @SaveMDCLibraries.

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