Monday, June 21, 2004

Libraries as Orphans

This past Friday, I trudged an extra mile in heat and humidity to get to the public library nearest to my home. Well, not quite the nearest. There’s one much closer on the other side of Borough Park. It’s been shuttered for perhaps two years, presumably for renovations. No one seems to know when it will reopen. Meanwhile, the families that used it – and it was a busy place – will have to make do without an educational resource that was important to thousands of kids. Who cares? Libraries are orphans or perhaps stepchildren and they have to be satisfied with whatever they get.

I arrived at the library at about 3pm. The place was busy but not crowded. According to a librarian, the facility is usually packed at that hour on Fridays. Far and away, most of the people were charedim or very Orthodox Jews, mainly Chassidim. There were men with beards, girls with long skirts, boys with peyos. Of the ten computer terminals, six were being used by religious Jews. In the separate children’s reading room, chassidic mothers were reading to clusters of children. In sharp contrast to chassidic dress, the staff and others who were using the library had what can be called a contemporary look.

As I looked at the scene, I thought of an article in the Jerusalem Post that I had read two weeks previously while in Israel. It was by Ephraim Zuroff who demonstrated anew a capacity to write without sense or sensibility about religious Jews. Himself part of the Modern Orthodox fringe that constantly attacks Jews of a more religious orientation, Zuroff wrote that unlike charedim, the Modern Orthodox believe that a religious Jew “need not live totally divorced from one’s surroundings.” Charedim, he declared without qualification, “totally reject” this premise and seek “total segregation.”

This is total nonsense, if only because total separation is a sociological impossibility. As the library experience clearly shows, charedim do manage to be part of the larger society, at least in some key respects.

I did not go to this branch to test an absurd claim or to rebut those who constantly denigrate religious Jews. My purpose was more general and secular, to learn about public libraries, specifically how they are being treated by those who control their funding. The story is depressing.

Public libraries in New York City have experienced sharp cutbacks in funding, hours and services. They are essentially a bit more than half-day operations. In Brooklyn, they open at one pm and, on most days, close at six. Weekend and summer hours have also been severely curtailed. New York’s recent budget problems have much to do with this, although even in the best of times, public libraries were very low on the totem pole. When I attended yeshiva on the Lower East Side eons ago, I would drop in at the Seward Park branch of the New York Public Library, then as now an attractive building on East Broadway across the street from the famous Educational Alliance. The place was always hopping. There was – I think it is still there – a plaque on the building’s fa├žade proclaiming that the library was established through the generosity of Andrew Carnegie, the steel tycoon whose substantial philanthropy was largely targeted to build public libraries throughout the US.

Even now, philanthropy is a factor in library funding. Governments foot most of the bills, at least to the extent of ensuring that librarians are among the lowest paid civil servants. When belt tightening is required, libraries already accustomed to get by on very little take an extra hit. Isn’t it nice to pick on the weaklings?

In a way, librarians are responsible for their maltreatment. They are nearly all passive folks, people who believe in books and like what they are doing. It’s hard to find a less militant group of public employees and they pay dearly for their servility. Librarians never threaten to shut down a library. That task is assigned to budget cutters who prey on the weak.

There are funds aplenty for povertycrats and a multitude of schemes and scams concocted by those to whom pols kowtow. What is bogus is preferred over what is needed. More legitimately, there is now an urgent push to come up with additional billions for public schools. As for libraries, there is scarcely any spare change.

The upshot is that education and kids suffer, as do all of us. There is a steep price to pay for our miserly attitude toward institutions that serve as a barometer of the standards and civility of a society. It should not take much to figure out that libraries augment formal education, that they and books elevate children and transport them to worlds not seen and to ideas that were unknown. Why stifle the imagination and creativity engendered by reading? To save a small fraction of one percent of the city’s budget?

There’s much dysfunction in the lives of children, much pain and risk. Books are safe harbors and libraries are the place where most children find the books they want to read, the place where they develop good habits that give them a strong start toward a productive adulthood. We should not even for a moment want to limit the opportunity of children to find books to read. Is it preferable that they be on the street, hanging out and having an entirely different and often pernicious learning experience?

Of the rotten fruit of libraries being treated as orphans, none is more self-destructive than the further curtailment of summer hours. Every public library branch should be opened the entire day during the summer and there should be activities aimed at attracting additional children. Yet, there are now new cutbacks on top of the old ones.

We only have ourselves to blame. We have mistreated libraries and there are few who advocate their cause.