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Change of Subject: Cut libraries? Shush!

via Eric Zorn, Chicago Tribune

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal to cut staff and hours of operation at public libraries in the new city budget comes at a time when this cherished institution is already facing “formidable challenges” coast to coast, according to a recent policy report from the Chicago-based American Library Association.

In an increasingly digital, online world, fewer and fewer people are trundling back into the stacks to access the physical archives and collections.*  More and more people are downloading their media or finding it free on the Web, a practice sure to accelerate with the rapidly growing use of tablet computers and other portable e-readers.

A library today is less a destination for knowledge seekers as it is a portal — a point of entry to the ever more vast resources available at the click of a mouse.

The “fundamental function of all current public libraries is challenged by these Internet alternatives,” says “Confronting the Future: Strategic Visions for the 21st Century Public Library,” (pdf)  a 26-page analysis by consultant Roger Levien, a former ALA fellow.

Not just the function, but the funding, particularly when many municipalities are strapped for cash.

In June, the ALA reported in “New library study: demand up for technology, budget cuts limit access”  that 55 percent of urban library districts and 36 percent of suburban library districts have seen budget decreases this year, while 32 percent of urban libraries (16 percent overall) have recently had to trim their hours of operation.

The proposal in Chicago is to cut $8.6 million in funding, reduce hours by eight a week and lay off 283 staff members on top of 120 laid off two years ago under Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Why not?

After all, foot traffic at the branches is down 7.3 percent this year over last, according to the mayor’s office (where my call for comment to Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey was redirected), and many of us already now have what amounts to robust reference libraries right on our desktops.

Because many people still don’t have online access at home.

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