Monday, April 13, 2009

Libraries and Hard Times

There is a cliche that history repeats itself. This has more than some validity when it comes to libraries and hard times. The American Library Association is currently doing what it can to promote libraries and to assist libraries in making their case during these difficult economic times. Some of the arguments used by libraries during the great depression of the 1930s are being repeated today. ALA staff member Julia Wright Merrill writing in the December 1931 issue of the Bulletin of the American Library Association (predecessor of American Libraries) wrote about "The Challenge of the Depression". In that article Merrill quotes the arguments made by the Toledo Public Library to justify its funding in the hard times of that era.

Hard times bring a re-evaluation of institutions supported by taxes. The public has a right to expect its money's worth in accomplishment. Why the public library deserves adequate support at this time is a proper question and one which we wish to answer. As pointed out in this report, its load of work increases suddenly and greatly in times of depression. It serves and serves alike all classes of people, regardless of color, creed, nationality, age, or position. It provides the adult with a place of learning such as does no other organization, and is prepared to assist him as he meets difficult and practical problems.

The library's influence is positive and constructive. Knowledge tends to strengthen all who possess it. Good roads, public buildings, compulsory employment insurance, and other public supported measures are fine. They cannot, however, take the place of or create a better prepared and more enlightened citizenship. Support of the public library is an investment in men, not materials, and offers the opportunity for more than temporary relief.

The library's levy has, indeed, never been large. The present rate of .5 mill yields almost exactly a dollar per capita, which is considered a minimum amount on which to give good service. A reduction in income necessarily cuts seriously the quality and quantity of service. The ill effects due to lack of funds are not easily remedied even with increased funds at a later date. To develop good and efficient book collections requires time and continuous buying. A trained and effective personnel are the result of time and uninterrupted development. The need for books today cannot be satisfied with money five or ten years hence. Men and women can wait but little longer for mental food than for physical food. Today's opportunity must be met now or permanently denied.

I found this article at the New Deal Network. Other articles about libraries during the Great Depression can be found on this site by searching under "libraries". Library historian Charles Seavey has a good web article on "American Public Libraries in the Great Depression". The picture above is entitled "Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange from the Library of Congress digital collection.

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