by Melissa Hahn
- USA -
“They start arriving an hour before we open, and by the time we unlock the doors at 9 am there is a crowd of people waiting to get in. Within seconds, all of the computers are taken – and they are full for the next twelve hours until we close.” That’s how my husband Michael Hahn, Technology Coordinator, describes the need for free computers and Internet in this Phoenix suburb of around 250,000. It doesn’t surprise him that upon my arrival just before opening, I nearly trip over a middle-aged man and his son who are sitting on the sidewalk, hovering intently over a laptop.
“This is a hub of culture – books, learning, reading and playing,” he says. “I like the atmosphere – and that I can check my email while my son plays computer games. Anything that gets him into the library is a bridge to his future learning.”
With long hours and a packed calendar of entertainment and educational activities in free meeting rooms, this air-conditioned haven was popular with the public long before the current recession. Adult reference librarian Cindy says it’s because “it is one of the few places that really, truly, belongs to the community. Central to our mission for over two decades has been championing the idea of ‘the library as place’.” For her, libraries are living and breathing examples of ‘sustainable society’ in action.
Near the large-print Westerns and History books stands an elderly man dressed in a plaid western shirt, boots and a cowboy hat. Age 85, Earl says that he comes here at least once a week.
“It gives me something to occupy my time. And I’ve known these librarians for a long time… Every time I see one of them, she says, ‘You come back and see me sometime.’ I feel like I belong.”
So far, Glendale’s library system is managing to ride out the recession through a variety of targeted cuts and new technologies. Software was installed to manage patron computer usage and visitors now use a self-checkout machine.
Like all city staff, employees here will be forced to take a thirteen-day furlough to cope with budget shortfalls. While no lay-offs are expected, a recent wave of retirements in response to the furlough left many positions empty, forcing remaining staff to wear multiple hats and adapt to new responsibilities.
One of the biggest adjustments is dealing with citizen frustration. Debbie, a former corrections officer, is a security guard here. “We have seen an increase in problems with the economic downturn. The biggest challenge by far is theft.”
Toilet paper theft became such a problem that staff resorted to bar-coding the rolls that set off the library’s security sensors. Debbie reports an uptick in thefts by non-residents who don’t want to pay $40 per year for a library card.
Staff also field a variety of complaints such as those from Mr. Peters, who bemoans the current Internet bandwidth. “It’s even more important to have the Internet speed up now because so many more people are accessing it,” he says. “If they can’t get this fixed and the economy continues to falter, they’re going to have a lot of unhappy people on their hands.”
I asked him if he’d considered forming a citizens’ committee to share these concerns with the City Council, which votes on the library’s now restricted budget. “It’ll just fall on deaf ears,” he laments. But he’s also not willing to pay higher taxes.
So therein lies the Achilles’ Heel to the otherwise self-perpetuating, sustainable library. Buoyed by strong citizen support, the Glendale system has survived relatively unscathed. But if citizens are opposed to any tax increases and are not willing to advocate for their community’s needs, it’s only a matter of time before services will have to be scaled back.
Jan, a retired nurse with two granddaughters in tow, makes the best case for supporting local libraries.
“My oldest granddaughter learned to read before age 5 because of her time at the library, and her younger sister is on her way at 4 and a half,” she brags lovingly. “Libraries are so much more than just buildings. If you can read, you own the world.”
Melissa's article is part of our focus on
Sustainability & Responsible Stewardship. - Ed.
About the Author
Melissa Hahn is a freelance writer and world traveler whose projects include foreign affairs analysis, children's literature, and creative nonfiction. Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, she completed her B.A. in Russian Area Studies at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, and studied at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. She was previously an associate analyst at the Power and Interest Report and an editorial intern at The WIP. She currently writes for the English-language edition of the Pan-Korean Peacemaking Webzine.
A photojournalist and amateur artist, Melissa aims to bring small joys to people's lives and to enable Americans to release their fear of the rest of the world. Through her works, she hopes to inspire her readers to seize the day and experience the wonder of humanity that exists both around the globe and in their own backyards.