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Columnist
Public, school libraries suffer in poor economy
By Sarah Long | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 10/5/2009 10:34 AM

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In hard times, library usage goes up. Nationwide, more people applied for library cards last year than at anytime since 1990, when these statistics started being collected.

People are rushing to libraries for a variety of reasons. Libraries are essential if you're job hunting. The library has free, high-speed Internet connections and a wealth of resources to help with resume writing, seeking job openings and the finer details of applying for a job.

Conventional wisdom for getting work, especially for consultants, is using networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook. Another library advantage for the job seeker is that it's removed from the distractions of home and family; a quieter place to consider the next career move.

The library's other big draw is free education, culture and entertainment for all ages. Attendance at preschool story hours is up, as is attendance at almost any library program for any age group. Individuals and families are checking out books, DVDs, CDs and whatever else the library might have available for free. It's all being used double-time.

In hard times, ironically, funding for libraries typically decreases. In Illinois, public libraries are primarily funded by local property taxes. Based on fair market value, tax receipts typically lag about two years behind the economic events that caused the downturn. Funding for libraries is going to decline.

In Illinois, the hammer came down early. When the Illinois General Assembly adjourned this summer, one of the cuts they made was a reduction of 50 percent to all state grants from general revenue funds, including the per capita grants for public and school libraries and to regional library systems like the North Suburban Library System.

For the public libraries and schools, it was a grievous blow. For regional library systems, it was almost a death knell because the majority of the funding comes from this annual per capita grant from the state of Illinois.

Enter my new hero, Secretary of State Jesse White. You might not know it, but White has two jobs. Besides presiding over all things related to motor vehicles, he enforces the Illinois Securities Act and administers the Organ Donor Program.

White's other job is State Librarian. In this capacity, he administers federal grants to libraries, oversees all library development programs including the Regional Library Systems, and works with the state's literacy programs.

White moved quickly to reallocate the portion of the federal money that was to have been used in discretionary grants to shore up state grants to public and school libraries and the regional library systems. The grievous 50 percent cut was reduced by almost half. As a result, libraries are able to keep going and keep serving the people who need services the most in this terrible economic crisis.

What will happen in the future? This last-minute reprieve employed by White cannot continue. One can only hope that when times are better, the Illinois General Assembly will restore the lost funding.

Library users and advocates all across the state are banding together to send this message to the Illinois General Assembly. Specifically, they are asking lawmakers to make a promise, sort of like an IOU:

"Recognizing the importance of libraries and library systems to our communities and to the livelihood of the citizens of the state of Illinois, I (lawmaker) will work to oppose any additional cuts to library per capita grants in FY10. Furthermore, I will work to fully fund library per capita grants when additional state funding becomes available in the future."

Do you think libraries are important? Step up and tell your legislator. Visit the saveillinoislibraries.com Web site and make your voice heard.