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Across America, public libraries are reeling from budgetary problems, closing down branch offices, shortening hours, taking mobile units off the roads and even selling or throwing away books.
Dismayed by this trend, Dr. Ruth Perry, professor of literature, has made an impassioned appeal for the integrity and preservation of public libraries in the journal Profession 95, published by The Modern Language Association of America.
While most of the journal articles focus on the problems of funding and space encountered by research libraries in their efforts to preserve the print record, Professor Perry's article, "Postcript About the Public Libraries," reminds the academics that "crucial to the future of our culture is the threat posed to local public libraries by cutbacks in public spending.
"The closing of even small neighborhood branch libraries, with the loss of their collections," she writes, "means that the public suffers an irreplaceable loss of a wide variety of books. Every state in this country has seen branch libraries close or cut back their hours in the last decade. Operating with reduced staffs, many small branch libraries stay open only a few hours a week, often when people working nine-to-five cannot get to them.
"Most important," she adds, "the defunding of public libraries stymies the taste for books and reading in those who are poor and less mobile and cuts off their access to a quiet, non-commercial place of respite and imaginative renewal."
Public libraries "are the very cornerstone of a true democracy. They provide access to information and ideas about everything a thinking citizen might want to know to make a reasoned judgment, cast a vote, or register an opinion. A free society needs free public libraries.
"In our century," she adds, "public libraries have also been an important wellspring of serious literary production. Many of our best writers educated themselves in public libraries, browsing the open shelves, absorbing influences, coming upon unknown authors long out of print, following the trail of sudden interest and inspiration.
"Libraries thus represent our literary future as well as our literary heritage," she states.
Concluding, Professor Perry comments: "Free public space is in increasingly short supply in this country; there are few places to go any more and few things to do that do not cost money. Public libraries are among the last places left where all people are welcome, qualified for admittance merely by their humanity, curiosity, and literacy.
"Public libraries symbolize the commitment of our society to something other than commercial exchange. They provide democratic access to books and knowledge for a broad cross-section of our population including the elderly, the self-educated, immigrants, children, the poor.
"It is extremely shortsighted for academics to ignore the current defunding of public libraries and the real and symbolic threats it poses to the reading public and to extracurricular book culture. We need to defend our public libraries for the sake of an informed citizenry and for our children's children, the readers and writers of the future. Our art and our politics depend on the fullest possible access to the cultural record. If we do not make the effort to keep our libraries intact during these lean years, we will jeopardize for all time what is best in our society."