LIBRARY ADVOCATES are fond of saying that cutting library funds during a recession is like cutting hospital spending during an epidemic. Unfortunately, that is exactly what is happening. But library officials across the state are doing their best to maintain services with fewer dollars. The last thing the Boston Public Library needs is a threat from Boston’s state representatives to cut off all state library money if the city goes ahead with its plan to shutter four of its 26 branches.
The Boston library system made its difficult decision after a careful, realistic study of how best to maintain core library services. The decision was driven, in part, by a steep decline in the money that the system, like all public libraries, gets from the state. The $2.4 million in state aid planned for next year will make up less than 10 percent of the Boston library system’s budget. Instead of second-guessing the library’s decisions, the representatives should be working overtime to boost state aid to libraries.
Meanwhile, the state Board of Library Commissioners has come in for criticism for deciding to close regional centers that have helped local libraries with staff training and inter-library loans. Librarians in Western Massachusetts have been particularly critical, fearing that their employees would have to travel to eastern Massachusetts for training. But the commissioners stipulated that training would continue, sometimes at local libraries themselves, as would the inter-library loan system.
Librarians in western counties, where broadband service is sketchy at best, also see the cutbacks as a threat to their role as centers of extended broadband access. But a much bigger threat is the declining local and state funding needed simply to keep their doors open. Under the governor’s and House Ways and Means Committee’s budgets, state aid to local libraries is frozen at a level 32 percent less than just two years ago. This makes it all the harder for cash-strapped towns to keep their libraries open for more than a few nominal hours a week. If state legislators, from Boston or the Berkshires, want to play a useful role in maintaining library services, they should be looking for more direct aid to libraries either through a new revenue source or cuts elsewhere in the state budget.