by Stan Cutler

It is hard to persuade City Council and the Mayor’s Office to adequately fund the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP). Because of staff shortages, our local branch is not open on Saturdays and opens late on weekdays. Our organization, the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library, works alongside other Friendsgroups citywide as advocates for more resources, but it’s an uphill battle. If we, with your help, are to succeed, we need to prove the FLP’s relevance and contributions to the community. Do libraries matter? Should we invest in them?

Here are a couple of sample line items from The Mayor’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget of $4.69 billion.

• Free Library: $41 Million (87 percent, less than nine-tenths of a cent for every dollar)

• Fire Department: $259 million (5.5 percent)

• Office of Innovation and Technology: $66 million (1.4 percent, five percent more than the FLP , which must invest in technology innovation of its own to satisfy 21st century requirements)

• Parks and Recreation: $69 million (1.5 percent)

• Police: $709 million (15.1 percent) • Prisons: $256 million (5.5 percent)

• School District: $ 176 million (3.8 percent)

Only nine of our 122 public schools have a librarian, so the FLP contributes scarce resources to augment the Public School System’s woefully underfunded allocation. We have to remind City Hall of its obligation to the children – to the future.

Societies evolve around media, whether it’s rock paintings, books or digitized content. The ways we communicate define us. I worry about a society of people who fixate on personal media and prefer virtual interactions to real ones. Media technologies, in our commercialized society, encourage communities of strangers. Churches, mosques and synagogues fill the void for some of us. But the religious meeting places, like the public places, are also shrinking in the Cyber Age. My “church” is the library. I want it to flourish, not wither. I want to invest more in the FLP, not less.

Our public institutions rely on taxes and the enlightened allocation of money by elected officials. It’s as if politicians are like businessmen who believe that the only way to measure value is the bottom line. By definition, free libraries are an expense that returns intangible value.

What’s happening to the FLP is symptomatic of profound cultural change, a powerful tide of personalization enabled by profit-driven media industries. The media ecology that terminates on a flat screen is occupied by each of us – alone. If we have a question, we ask an artificial intelligence like Siri, Google or Watson. Using our cyber media devices, we buy and sell stuff. We stay electronically connected with our personally-selected circle, “friending” and “unfriending” our virtual communities, “following” or “unfollowing” Tweeters, only incidentally connected to our neighbors. We, Friends of The Library, resist devotion to the personal at the expense of the communal, to the pursuit of individual benefit at the expense of commonwealth. We pay taxes for a reason.

Free public libraries are essential elements of enlightened communities. The lights are going out. If we are to save public libraries, we have to fight. Convincing politicians of the Free Library’s value, because many of its rewards are intangible, requires us to be outspoken champions for the common good. Join us at chlibraryfriends.org

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