As writers continue to write, a national literary crises looms and no one seems to be paying it much attention. Libraries are in big trouble. As city and county budgets across the country tighten, libraries and other cultural departments, including museums and recreation, are among the first to feel the pinch.
The San Francisco Chronicle carried a front page story February 21 with the headline: ``Vallejo near state's first bankruptcy of a city.'' The sub headline was: ``$6 million deficit could force layoffs, cuts at library, swimming pool, history museum.''
That has already happened 120 miles down the coast in my town of Pacific Grove.
In the town where John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath and Clark Ashton Smith wrote some of the most intriguing science fiction of the mid-20th Century, where Robert Louis Stevenson wondered if the moss hanging off Cypress trees burned so he lit a match to a patch and nearly burned down the village, where William Saroyan stayed over one night in the 1930s to write a short story when he was the hottest short story writer in America—and we could go on—in this town library hours are continuing to be cut back at an alarming rate.
The Pacific Grove Public Library has "progressively'' cut hours from 70 to 52 weekly, and now, beginning the first of this month, from 52 to 40 hours per week. And it will probably only get worse. Senior Librarian Mary Housel says that if a proposed 50 percent library budget cut is approved, library hours will probably be cut again to four or five hours a day five days a week.
A lot of readers, because of work hours and other committments, will simply find it difficult to find library open hours that work for them.
If this pattern is repeated around the country, is there anyone who doesn't realize how this will have an effect on the number of people who are reading? Many of us developed our love of reading and writing in a children's library. And there is the human tragedy of people who have devoted their lives to the library sciences losing their jobs, abandoning their calling. Writers have few better friends than dedicated librarians.
So, yes, it is the economy. Rising salaries, inflation, oversized retirement packages, lower property tax appraisals as the housing market diminishes; these are all factors. Police and fire, understandably, are the last to be cut back.
Libraries don't generate income, so they are vulnerable (in Pacific Grove, when you pay an overdue book fine, the money goes to the city's general fund, not the library, taking what little satisfaction there is out of forking over the money). On the other hand, bureaucratic city staffs are often top heavy, while librarians and other people important to a community, such as museum or recreation directors, lose their jobs.
And there is, and has always been, the view of some in power that anything that is literary or cultural is also extraneous, and rates low on the totem pole.
There are passionate supporters of the library in Pacific Grove and, I hope, also in Vallejo and everywhere libraries are in trouble. My wife, Nancy, is on our library board, but the board is only advisory. The staff, led by Mary Housel, is superb, but already one important librarian has left, seeking out job security elsewhere.
Pacific Grove's city budget problems, beyond the state of the economy, stem from past mismanagement of funds and salaries, something the library had nothing to do with. But there's nothing to be done about that now, other than try to do better.
My hope is, frankly, that the best known librarian in America gets involved in keeping our libraries functioning and strong. Laura Bush needs a legacy. If she speaks up, in her final year of having the White House as a podium, maybe the politicians will listen, maybe communities will do something before it is too late.
Laura Bush could come to Pacific Grove, or Vallejo, or a small library in Mississippi or South Dakota facing hard times; she could lend her voice to reversing what is an alarming trend that should concern anyone who loves and values reading—
If anyone knows how to get this problem to her attention, please do.
Causes Steve Hauk Supports
City of Pacific Grove Public Library, Pacific Grove, California; Animal Friends Rescue Project, Pacific Grove; Animal Welfare Information and Assistance,...