News Section: Opinion
Give the Libraries Their Funding Back
Faced with declining revenues amid a real estate collapse and ensuing economic recession, Manatee County began slashing funding to its libraries in 2009. With the budget recovering and library usage at an all-time high, it's time to start putting money back into a community resource that has the potential to deliver a unique return on investment.
I've spent a good chunk of my life in public libraries going all the way back to the time when I was a young child. The small coal mining village where I grew up has what by Manatee County standards would be considered an extremely modest library, yet it always seemed like a place of tremendous wonder to me, so many heroes and villains existing between those narrow walls – all there for the taking and costing me no more than a couple of late fines.
I'm a product of the public library system. It fostered my love of reading and later writing, and I don't know if I would be in my current profession today if it weren't for this precious public resource. Growing up in a very poor family, we didn't have a shelf full of books. We didn't even have the ubiquitous Encyclopedia Britannica collection that seemed to be in every household of that era. Books came from the library and for me and my sisters, a trip there was like going to the circus, especially on the occasions during summer break when our father – a voracious reader himself – would pile us into the station wagon to explore the much bigger branch in our county seat.
The library has been a favorite haunt for me and my own son since he was less than a year old. These days, he and I visit the public libraries in Manatee County regularly, often several times in a week. Whether it's a quick stop into the Braden River location to break up the long car ride home from his school, a good long Saturday afternoon trip to the Central Library, an hour out at the island when we want to get a little respite from the sun during a sojourn to the beach, or a trip across the bridge to Palmetto for a change of scenery and a picnic at the Historical Village, we are always game.
It is a ritual that never ceases to be productive. We literally learn something every time we enter one of the buildings and to see him share my affinity for this special place has been one of the great joys of parenthood. This year, they even made us honorary Geeks in their popular PSA campaign, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that few things have made me as proud as seeing our pictures on posters when we walk inside the downtown branch.
Libraries are always important, but in recent years our community learned just how much so. In a down economy, more people than ever find themselves in need of free Internet service (perhaps to apply online for a job or sign up for unemployment benefits), borrowed books or a movie to watch. More struggling single parents look to the extensive array of free children's programming that is offered, more seniors to the socially-oriented meetings and events. The reduced evening schedules and the lack of Sunday hours make it difficult for many working-age residents to utilize this resource, however, and restoring access should be a priority.
There's also the clear need for more east county facilities. Year after year, we are told that the growth in revenues from all of the dense development in our formerly pastoral hamlets will keep us awash in tax revenue. Yet for all of the houses we've built in Lakewood Ranch – not to mention their considerable property tax contributions – folks out there still have to fight traffic all the way to the Braden River Branch, several miles west of the interstate, if they want to utilize a library.
Nearly a million residents used Manatee County libraries over 3 million times last year. Less fortunate children without access to high-speed Internet at home routinely wait to get online at one of the too few stations. Restoring funding will mean more opportunities for residents – especially less fortunate ones – to engage their community, stimulate their minds and pursue intellectual endeavors. That is never a bad thing.
A community's libraries are a potent indication of its culture, its enrichment, its values. Manatee County has a library system and a dedicated staff of competent and friendly professionals it can be proud of. It is more than unfortunate if a severe economic downturn left us with no choice than to diminish this community asset, but the time has come to start reinvesting in this societal gem.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.
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