Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Librarians make noise, protest budget cuts

What happens when you try to take a library away from a librarian? All hell breaks loose.

Well, that’s bit of an exaggeration, but let me say that any stereotypes of librarians as meek and mild-mannered were shattered this morning at the Save Ohio Libraries rally at the Cleveland Public Library. More than a hundred from around Ohio made the trek to Superior Avenue to send the message to Governor Strickland that they wouldn’t stand for his proposal to reduce the Public Library Fund by 50 percent starting next year. If Strickland gets his way, cuts for library funding in Ohio in the next two years would total $227 million.

Signs with slogans such as “Save Ohio Libraries” and American flags were all over the place, but a few gems stuck out, including the woman holding the alliterated gem “Slasher Strickland to Slice Libraries” and pictures of Strickland holding a book with “READ” across the top, modified to say “CLOSED?” The Kingsville Library even showed up with puppets that yakked along with the crowd during chants of “Act Now, Save our Libraries!” It was definitely a stark difference from the quiet atmosphere indoors.

The rally kicked off at about 10:30 a.m. with Cleveland Public Library director Felton Thomas Jr. explaining how the budget cuts would affect the downtown branch. Cleveland’s library gets 35 percent of funding from the state government, so Strickland’s budget proposal would basically slash $14 million over a two-year period. But for the 70 percent of Ohio libraries that receive at least half of their funding from the state, the consequences will be even worse -- they may have to close their doors.

"We understand that there are no easy answers, governor, but without our libraries, there are no answers,” said Thomas to the rally-goers, his words encouraging a voracious round of applause.

Heads of libraries from all over Cuyahoga County and beyond took turns explaining reasons why libraries are necessary, citing children’s programs, places to vote, English education and programs for the disabled.

Cleveland city councilman and former Ohio Rep. Eugene Miller let the crowd in on a little “secret”: that Strickland would be at the Crowne Plaza Hotel downtown at 11:30. He encouraged everyone go to the hotel to give him a piece of their mind.

“It’s strange having to fight my former colleagues for funding,” Miller said, adding that he knew how to get to Columbus pretty fast if need be.

I talked to Rebecca McFarland and Mike Stein from the Euclid Public Library, and they said that the system has already been feeling the effects of cuts in the past year.

Stein explained how he believes the governor's proposed cuts would affect the system.

“What the budget calls for is not a reduction of the budget of libraries, but closing libraries,” he said. "They won’t be able to be able to function. … If they cut the current budget to what is proposed, there aren’t libraries, basically. Libraries as we know them are done.”

While some have suggested merging the Cleveland Public Library with the rest of the Cuyahoga County system, Thomas argues that doing so would be detrimental to urban libraries and is not a viable solution to the funding problem.

“When you merge a system, you take out the long-term history of how they serve the community,” Thomas argues. “Our system is very different than the Cuyahoga County system, which are for the most part suburbs. We deal with very urban communities, and the ability to serve those is something that we worked over many years to learn how to best reach out to those communities.”

Library supporters have until Friday to garner support from the community to persuade Strickland to balance his budget differently.

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