Strained Libraries Offer a Lifeline
A young Juanita Rarick found refuge at the Howe Library in Albany's South End during the Great Depression. There, the girl could escape the instability of the world outside.
"I'd sit there and read quite a bit, maybe a couple of hours," an 88-year-old Rarick told me last year when I wrote about the Howe. Sadly, she passed away last summer, but I remembered how she spoke fondly about the sanctuary the library provided - a sharp contrast to what was going on in Albany and the country.
"We lived all over the South End. We lived on Pearl Street, Broad Street, Morton Avenue and Alexander Street. Some of this was during the Depression. We moved a lot. I guess we couldn't pay the rent, so we moved. That's terrible. It was the truth you know. We lived all over the South End," Rarick said.
"It was hard. Nobody had jobs, but then Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president and he brought us out of the Depression really. He had the WPA for the fathers then he had programs for young boys to earn money planting pine trees and fir trees. He had all those programs going on."
The Works Progress Administration also established a library program, employing more than 14,500 in 45 states, according to a 1938 article by WPA official Ellen S. Woodward in the Wilson Bulletin for Librarians. At that time, about 2,300 new libraries were established. More than 5,800 traveling libraries brought materials to rural areas. In Kentucky, packhorse libraries employed 232 workers to deliver books in the mountains. In Mississippi, a WPA library worker used a houseboat along the Yazoo River to deliver books.
At the Howe, during those hard times that are sounding a lot like these hard times, circulation boomed.
The library as a sanctuary during rough times is hardly new.
Today, patrons are flocking to libraries in droves at the same time that hours are being cut, library branches are being closed and retiring school librarians are not being replaced.
Some of these kids without librarians may not have access to the Internet for school projects at home anymore as parents coping with financial hardship trim household expenses, like the Internet service.
In public libraries, those seeking work are finding computer stations vital in the search for jobs - and a way to get out of the house during a time when despair is rampant.
About 1,000 librarians visited the state Capitol earlier this month to lobby for libraries. The proposed state budget could bring library funding down to 1993 levels - an $18 million cut, according to Kathleen Miller, the president-elect of the New York Library Association.
"Libraries are part of the solution in these tough times," she said. The irony is that people are being sent to the library at the same time cuts are being proposed. Many companies now only accept employment applications online. And state officials are telling people to use the libraries to print out tax forms and other documents. Paper and printer cartridges do not come cheap.
Librarians are finding themselves helping with resumes and complicated public assistance forms. According to a recent survey by NYLA, 80 percent of state libraries have helped a patron search for a job in a three-month period; 75 percent of those libraries have helped a patron access a public assistance program.
Libraries weren't meant to be social service agencies, but in hard times, that's what they do.
"At this particular time, libraries are keeping the infrastructure together," Miller said.
Besides vital job searches and public assistance roles, libraries are helping families trim household entertainment costs.
Circulation is way up and will probably continue to go up as people choose to forgo expensive vacations, buying books, DVDs, video games and outings to expensive theme parks. Libraries offer free programs for kids, from story hours to "Guitar Hero" video game parties. Reading programs and free passes to local museums will help students stay sharp during summer vacation.
We don't need packhorses and river boats, but we need the doors open and professional librarians to help us during a time that is becoming more reminiscent of an era when a young Juanita Rarick sought solace from books and a library.
Donna Liquori is a freelance writer based in Delmar, New York. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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