“The library connects us with the insight and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species. I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.” — Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Last Friday afternoon, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland (D) announced his new budget proposal for the upcoming year. The proposal cuts approximately three billion dollars from the budget, a necessity due to the state’s current fiscal troubles. In doing so, he made a few observations:

[The budget] prioritizes extremely limited resources toward critical health and safety services to provide for the greatest number of vulnerable Ohioans during this difficult time.

And, perhaps most important, this framework positions Ohio for the job creation needed for near-term recovery and for long-term economic growth after the recovery. We have a shared responsibility to make the decisions necessary to maintain a balanced budget without crippling the state’s growth and economic progress. So my balanced budget framework calls for continued investments in a reformed system of education, which is the key to Ohio’s economic revival.

Our schools must provide a world-class education for every child and teach the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that businesses tell us they look for in the people they hire. Our system of education does not do this now, and delaying this is not an option.

[…]

…In order to balance the budget we must reduce services that Ohioans have needed and received in the past but the state can no longer continue to provide. But in reducing these services, we must minimize the impact on our most vulnerable, especially children, the elderly and disabled.

Second, we must continue to prioritize education for economic growth. The jobs of the future will go where world-class schools produce highly-trained, highly-skilled workers. Postponing education reform will only hold Ohio back.

This has been a difficult choice for me but I believe a necessary one. It is contrary to what I ever thought I would have to do. Still, after looking at an array of choices before me and the state legislature, I have concluded this is the best course of action to meet our balanced budget obligations.

Before we go any further, I want to make clear that I respect the grave status of Ohio’s fiscal health. Consequently, I acknowledge that Strickland’s had to make some tough decisions that are never going to be popular. I am puzzled and saddened, though, by one particular piece of Strickland’s budget proposal – the drastic cut in state library funding.

In order to get to his three billion in savings, Strickland has proposed that $112 million be cut from state library funds. While that sounds large, that’s the tip of the iceberg. State libraries were already bracing for a hit due to a decrease in state tax receipts thanks to the economic mess. By state law, libraries receive 2.2 percent of tax revenues, so if the state’s tax collections are plentiful, libraries do well in the budget; if they shrink, libraries’ funding decreases. Before Strickland announced his proposal, Ohio libraries were already expecting an eighteen percent cut (from the expected $464 million to $365 million). But as mentioned earlier, Strickland’s plan would take off an additional $112 million, leaving Ohio libraries with $253 million — a 45 percent decrease, and a fatal blow to libraries across the state.

l I’m puzzled at this decision to gut library funding mainly because of Strickland’s non-stop talk of improving the quality of education in Ohio since he campaigned for governor. In fact, one can see in the excerpt from his speech provided above that he continues to mention his desire to develop an educational system in Ohio that results in graduates getting quality jobs to participate in a strong economy. But how can one rely on a strong educational system to build a state’s economy when the laboratories of this educational system — the state’s libraries — are being slaughtered? A library is the best chance for a child to develop that spark — the love to learn — that leads to great accomplishments, providing our state and our country with so many bright minds. A comment made today on Governor Strickland’s Facebook crystallized the point: “Isn’t it ironic that our library proudly has hanging a poster of you, Governor Strickland, holding a book, promoting literacy. The proposed further cut to library funding is a travesty!” Wall messages like this one continue to pour in expressing disappointment, and it’s because of the mixed signals Strickland is sending to Ohioans — big talk of reforming Ohio education, while taking the money that solidifies this revitalization away from a crucial piece of the effort.

But it’s not just the confusion of mixed signals. What’s really depressing about this proposal is his failure to recognize libraries as a vital tool in communities battling the recession. A few months ago, I wrote of the importance libraries carry in our communities, especially during hard economic times:

Libraries offer those less fortunate in the community that free access to meeting rooms, technology, printing services, an audio/video rental program, and simply, a place to gather (if quietly). Libraries are also an essential part of that ideal rooted in the American dream, that one can pull him/herself up by their bootstraps, given strong support from the community. The values of life-long learning and independent education are represented in a community library. Furthermore, libraries offer us the information we need in making educated decisions about political candidates and issues.

Unfortunately we’re seeing funding for libraries cut all over the country, as lawmakers see it as easy way to get budgets back in check, because many libraries serve this role in an understated manner. In reality, though, libraries form a central role in our economic crisis. Money Magazine, in 2005, noted that nowhere else is someone going to enjoy free access to technology, important information using that technology, and “experts” to assist them in finding this information and sorting through it. Yet another example of an efficient use of resources.

Strickland’s big mistake here is to lay all of the burden on an institution that is prepared to do more to help those impacted by this rough economy than any other state-funded entity. Now, if the library portion of Strickland’s proposal is approved by the State House and Senate, the only hope many libraries will have to survive will lie with a library levy — not exactly the most popular thing on the ballot in these times. The reality is that many smaller libraries will be forced to close. While there will be jobs lost all across the state, perhaps the saddest thing will be the signal to our children. Do we really want our children to grow up knowing that, when it came down to hard decisions, the “village” raising them decided against investing in their future?

And perhaps the most unsettling question. Those already having lost their jobs – where do they go? Cutting funding for our libraries pulls the plug on their futures, as many of them rely on their community libraries to rebuild their futures. When libraries are needed the most in Ohio (as evidenced by soaring circulation numbers during recessions), their future is the darkest. It can’t just be me that doesn’t get that.

As progressives, we owe it to ourselves to claim what we believe to be the most important of our civic institutions. As young progressives, we have a responsibility to see to it that in times of turmoil, we increase investment in our youth instead of cutting and running. If we all have a concern for our future, as Mr. Sagan suggested above, we’ll be sure to fight for Ohio’s libraries, especially if you’re reading this from the Buckeye State.

Ted Strickland’s Facebook page

The Ohio Library Council

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