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EDITORIAL: Where can you go?


WHY WOULD ANYONE need to know anything that isn’t available on your cell phone? Prefer to call it a mobile device or pad? Go ahead. Some of us refer to it as “that damn thing” but the question remains: What are you missing once you’re connected?

Knowledge is at your fingertips as long as you have access to high speed internet service. Too bad we live in the county with the worst connections in the whole state. We hold unlimited facts and fiction in our hands if we can afford the data charges and the fees to get through the pay-walls where it lives. Oh, the things we can learn from reliable sources assuming we know what “reliable” means. And we can never forget to take precautions that discourage online crooks from looting our wallets whenever we browse.

We love our devices. We’re edgy without them. And yet in the parallel universe of human interaction there are still libraries. Imagine that. There are 11 of them scattered all over this county. Walk in to any one of them and you’ll find information that you need or want to know plus plenty of stuff you didn’t expect. You find people who can help you find it too. There are computers and connectivity as well as events for kids and adults, performances, lectures, instruction and books (yes, books!) the “e-” type and print, magazines…. And it’s free, kind of.

Not really. Somebody has to pay. Here in Columbia County it cost $2.2 million last year to keep all 11 libraries operating. The largest chunk of that–$1.3 million–came from what the state calls “local government funds.”

Did you know that our local governments spend less in total on libraries here in this county than government does in Greene County, which has fewer people and only eight libraries?

Most of the local government money comes from town or city property taxes. County government supports the Columbia County Library Association, which represents our local libraries and distributes most of its funds directly to those libraries.

This year the library association asked the county for a 3% increase. It wants to use some of the money for shared resources that are directly available to users in all the libraries in the county. At the committee meeting where the request was presented officials suggested instead that the increase might be limited to the state tax levy cap of 1.8%.

That’s a reasonable response. Sadly, these are not reasonable times. The supervisors may want to avoid proposing anything over the mandated cap to send a message to warn off others who might seek increases. But there is nothing that requires individual budget lines to stay within the cap; it’s the whole budget that is supposed to meet that target.

There are no civic institutions in our society more dedicated to sharing resources–or more effective at doing it–than public libraries. On that trait alone they are a good investment, especially considering the risk: the library association’s request is $69,731 in a multi-million-dollar county budget. But other agencies and organizations spend wisely doing good work too, so why should libraries get special treatment?

Well, consider what’s happening at the federal level. Libraries receive grants and other forms of assistance from a small U.S. agency called the Institute for Museum and Library Services. In March the Trump administration released a budget that eliminated the agency. In a rare bipartisan moment, Congress not only restored the agency, it added $1 million to its budget for 2017. But the president’s budget proposal in May for the 2018 budget once again cuts the only avenue the federal government has for improving library services.

This is not a conservative approach to reducing government spending, it is part of an effort by the White House to limit public access to the broadest possible range of information. Public libraries are an irreplaceable conduit to knowledge. They sustain a democratic society, ensuring that all citizens have not only the right but the means to decide for themselves what is true and what is fake.

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