, Salem, MA


February 1, 2013

Our view: Libraries vital to civic life

“Whatever the cost of libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.”

— Walter Cronkite

Public libraries are this country’s great equalizer. We may not all have a chance to attend the nation’s most exclusive and expensive colleges and research universities, but we have access to the same great works studied there, from Copernicus and Shakespeare to Neil deGrasse Tyson and Neil Gaiman. Can’t afford the latest novel from Junot Diaz, Joyce Carol Oates or James Lee Burke? They’re there for free at the libraries.

Great community libraries — and there are several here on the North Shore — are hotbeds of civic engagement. You can figure out how to pay your taxes there, read the local paper or research local zoning ordinances. There are meetings or programs most days or nights, with something to engage all ages. These libraries and those who run them are often caretakers of local history, from books and records to local ephemera. Librarians, like journalists, are dogged defenders of the First Amendment.

Peabody’s library director, Martha Holden, notes that her staff helps “hundreds of people, seven days a week.”

“I don’t know of a better use you get out of a public resource,” she said.

We agree. Simply put, libraries are irreplaceable.

So we sit up and take notice when elected officials mention, even in passing, that libraries may soon be obsolete or unnecessary.

The subject came up during a Peabody City Council last week, when the panel was considering the cost of renovating the Peabody Institute Library.

The historic building — a gift to the city by philanthropist George Peabody in 1852 — needs about $3.1 million in repairs, including shoring up the trusses that support the roof of the library. The news comes on the heels of a $3.1 million outlay for a heating and air-conditioning overhaul a few years ago. And there’s no guarantee there won’t be a need for even more renovations down the line; in fact, it seems likely.

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