The life and death of libraries

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There is something to be said for corporate paternalism. Growing up in the Cumberland Mills section of Westbrook with the S.D. Warren paper mill smokestacks belching filth and stench, we nonetheless benefited from the patronage of the mill. We played baseball on Warren fields, basketball in Warren Gym, football on Olmsted Field (named for a Warren president), vied for S.D. Warren college scholarships, and did our homework at the Warren Memorial Library.

Now, Warren Memorial is slated to close May 1, its endowment having been depleted by the downturn in the economy and a $3 million renovation in 2003.

Arguably, having two libraries in a city the size of Westbrook – Warren Memorial in Cumberland Mills, Walker Memorial downtown – was always something of a luxury. But if the good folks trying to save the Warren Memorial Library fail, the death of the library will be one more sad event in the long, slow decline of civic institutions in this country.

Back in the 1960s, I spent hours sitting in the slippery ebony Windsor chairs at Warren Memorial, copying reports out of the “World Book Encyclopedia” and poring over popular philosophy books by forgotten writers such as Lin Yutang and Will and Ariel Durant. The time I spent at Warren Memorial was the reason I majored in philosophy in college and the reason I went to work for the Portland Public Library after graduation.

Public libraries have always struck me as embodying the very best of the democratic ideal, providing everyone free and equal access to the intellectual records of civilization. Libraries are the people’s university. Or, at least, they were. That designation probably now falls to the Internet – if you can afford to access it.

I worked at PPL from 1972 to 1980. I met my lovely wife, Carolyn, there. I was a librarian, she a student at USM. At the same time that I was reading and studying at Warren Memorial, Carolyn was reading and studying at the Burbank Branch of the Portland Public Library. Forty-some years later, Rachel Smith, the great and good public servant who once ran the Burbank Branch, still works at the Main Library on Monument Square. In fact, there are still a handful of devoted staff whose employment predates mine. Amazing. Steadfast, loyal, and true.

Portland Public Library has been through a lot since I worked there. Back then, the Main Library was open all day until 9 p.m. several days a week. When those hours were cut during an earlier recession, it signaled to me that libraries were no longer regarded as vital public services. And the hours just keep getting whittled away. I find it disturbing that a major urban library is not open on Mondays or evenings. I find it even more disturbing that, in reaction to this deep recession, library trustees are considering even deeper cuts in hours of service.

In an information society, it is more important than ever for all citizens to have access. In a recession such as this, more and more people are turning to public libraries to get that access. This is absolutely the wrong time to be cutting library hours.

In the cases of both Warren Memorial and Portland Public, I get the impression that trustees, focused on the bottom line, lack a broader vision of public service. The Westbrook library seems to be dying from an ill-timed expansion. The Portland library, which trustees just two years ago were trying to downsize, is dying the proverbial death of a thousand cuts.

What should library trustees do differently? Get fired up. Make the case. Tell your story. Seek volunteer help. Start a library crusade. Find the money. They might be surprised to discover just how powerful and empowering it is to work on behalf of an institution that everyone holds in common.

Sidebar Elements

beem-edgar.jpgThe Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s personal look at the world around him. “Backyard Maine,” a collection of his columns, is available now at local bookstores.