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Whacking Libraries

Public officials today—from George W. Bush to city council members— are reaching for the budget axe to whack library funding, forcing branches to close, valuable services to be eliminated, and hours to be cut.
 
 
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In the depths of the Great Depression, not a single public library in America closed its doors. Banks went under, farmers went bankrupt, millions of people were out of work and out of luck—but the American public clung to its libraries, not only because of their inherent value to our society, but also because they are symbols of community strength and hope.

How lame, then, to see public officials today—from George W. Bush to city council members—reaching for the budget axe to whack library funding, forcing branches to close, valuable services to be eliminated, and hours to be cut. In a time of unprecedented wealth in America, in a time when governments dump billions of taxpayer dollars into corporate subsidies and boondoggles, our so-called leaders are failing the people by going after these true public treasures.

Check out Salinas, Calif.—a hard hit working-class city which is now the largest population in America without a public library. Ironically, this is the hometown of John Steinbeck, the prize-winning author of The Grapes of Wrath and other powerful works that chronicled the human spirit during the Depression years. Steinbeck knew that literature has the power to elevate the spirit and help people rise above difficult times, and it is said that he got some of his early exposure to the power of literature at the Salinas library.

Since Steinbeck's day, Salinas expanded to three branch libraries, one named after him. But now, all three have been closed by the city council, which is facing large budget deficits. This move shuts out the 1,900 people a day who count on the library for books, literacy courses, internet access, after-school programs and other services. Also, nearly three dozen employees have been shown the door.

This is not a Salinas story, but a failure of all public leadership. Why are they dumping billions into Bush's Star Wars boondoggle, for example, while public libraries, which provide essential services that keep America informed and enlightened are forced to go begging?

Jim Hightower is the best-selling author of Let's Stop Beating Around the Bush , from Viking Press. For more information, visit jimhightower.com.