Troy, Michigan's public library – celebrated by numerous celebrated writers – will shut unless a dedicated local tax is voted in
A library "is a space ship that will take you to the farthest reaches of the Universe, a time machine that will take you to the far past and the far future," wrote Isaac Asimov 40 years ago, celebrating the opening of a Michigan library which is threatened with immediate closure.
As funding cuts hit libraries across America, famous supporters of the public library in Troy, Michigan, have helped draw attention to its case – a "particularly graphic example" of budget cuts, according to the American Library Association. As well as Asimov's letter of support, Charlotte's Web author EB White also penned a missive celebrating the library's opening, in which she wrote that "books hold most of the secrets of the world, most of the thoughts that men and women have had", while Theodor Geisel – Dr Seuss – exhorted the "children of Troy" to "Read! Read! Read!". A four-page, handwritten letter from the British illustrator Edward Ardizzone retells how he grew up in a house of books, Kingsley Amis urges children to "use your library, remembering that, whatever else you may not have, if you have books you have everything", and astronaut Neil Armstrong writes that "How we use the knowledge we gain determines our progress on earth, in space or on the moon. Your library is a storehouse for mind and spirit. Use it well."
The letters were solicited in 1971 by Troy children's librarian Marguerite Hart, who asked dozens of famous names to tell the town's children about the importance of libraries, receiving 97 replies. They were recently rediscovered by the library's head of public services Phillip Kwik, who posted them online where he says they "went viral", receiving over 25,000 hits in a month. "The letters are a living reminder of the need for a public library," said Kwik. "They reflect a time, in the US, when despite what was going on, we were a more compassionate nation. We understood the benefits of public institutions, education, and libraries in improving ourselves, our neighbours, our communities and the world. Something in the letters speaks to every one of us, and engender thoughts of a better, more informed, and more tolerant society."
Troy library has lost 14 staff since last July and had been scheduled to close in May, but a potential reprieve has been offered by a special election on 2 August which will propose establishing a dedicated local tax, or "millage". "Troy library is under threat because the city of Troy does not have the revenue to fund it any longer," said Cathy Russ, the library's director. "Currently, the library is scheduled to be open through Tuesday, August 2, the date of the special election," said Russ. "I am told that if the millage fails, 'the library will close immediately'. While I think the library will be open on Wednesday, August 3, I can't guarantee that it would be open for very much longer after that, if the millage fails."
Troy's library is not the only one struggling. Nineteen US states reported cuts in state funding for public libraries over the last year, according to the ALA's annual report, with cuts at the state level often compounded by local spending reductions. A survey of librarians by Library Journal found that 72% said their budget had been cut, while 43% reported staff cuts. The magazine described the situation as "a brutal grasping by money-starved government officials for the low-hanging fruit of library budgets".
"All across the United States, large and small cities are closing public libraries or curtailing their hours of operations," said the Pulitzer prize-winning poet Charles Simic. "'The greatest nation on earth', as we still call ourselves, no longer has the political will to arrest its visible and precipitous decline and save the institutions on which the workings of our democracy depend ... Their slow disappearance is a tragedy, not just for those impoverished towns and cities, but for everyone everywhere terrified at the thought of a country without libraries."
Russ agreed. "Libraries across the US have had to deal with budget cuts, there is no question about it. And some of the smaller libraries without dedicated millages are facing closure," she said. "It saddens me that an institution that is designed to help everyone, regardless of background, age, economic situation, is under such threat these days."