SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

February 1, 2013

Our view: Libraries vital to civic life


The Salem News

---- — “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.

It’s certainly a lot of money, and we share city officials’ concerns about the expense. The council wisely agreed to advertise the project with the understanding that some or all of the plan could be changed later to lower the cost.

We part ways, though, with those who doubt the importance of libraries.

Councilor Rico Mello said the debate over spending “makes me wonder ... about the future of libraries” at a time when information is available at the click of a mouse.

We say libraries are even more important in the Internet age. The Web offers an unending stream of unfiltered information. Now, more than ever, we need trained individuals to help us sort out fact from fiction, to help us find information we’re looking for, be it on a dusty bookshelf or an obscure website, and to make sense of what we’ve found.

Librarians have done that work for years, and they are doing it now. They are also continuing to find innovative ways to serve their public. Consider Read This! — the engaging blog from staffers at the Peabody Institute Library of Danvers (you can find it at danversreads.wordpress.com) that has about six years’ worth of book reviews and recommendations.

Last year, the Beverly Public Library unveiled its new bookmobile, an effort to serve readers at the Senior Center, the city’s assisted-living facilities and the elementary and middle schools (to the tune of about 66,000 books a year). And the Salem Public Library, which has the largest circulation of any library in the area, has made a concerted effort to reach out to non-English speakers.

There is a lot to be proud of here.

Buildings come and go, and some day, Peabody’s library may need to find a new home. But libraries aren’t buildings. Libraries are the beating hearts of healthy, engaged communities, and they deserve to be treated that way.