Ever since I was a four-year-old beginning reader, I have experienced the delights of the library. The treasures that I discovered in the library have given me an opportunity to travel through time and space. Via the wonders of books and my own imagination, I’ve gone to prehistoric times with Jean Auel, to outer space with Isaac Asimov, into the mind of a dictator with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, on amazing and heroic quests with Alexandre Dumas, and to so many other places and times and realities.

The treasures that I have discovered in the public libraries may be lost to Erie County residents. County Executive Joel Giambra’s “red budget” cuts funding for the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library system from a requested $29,154,123 to $6,082,879. The result would be that the entire system of 52 libraries would be forced to close on January 1, 2005. Borrowing from libraries will discontinue on December 7, 2004.

Busy Year for the Library

Buffalo and Erie County’s library system recorded a successful year for 2003 with 52 locations, mobile outlets, and remote access via the internet. According to the library systems website (www.buffalolib.org), nearly 350,000 people are regular customers of the library. The trend continues into 2004, with a six percent increase in circulation over 2003, a 24 percent increase in computer use, and a 12 percent increase in materials shipped among all of the library system’s locations.

The red budget, however, would decimate these services, said Michael Mahaney, director of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library system. It would provide “barely enough money to lay off the staff and lock the doors of all 52 libraries, including the central library.” Any remaining money would be used for climate control, to ensure that the pipes do not freeze in the vacated buildings.

Ironically, according to the Erie County Legislature, in a prepared handout to attendees at its four public hearings, $14 million has been budgeted for library supplies, including books, media, and capital projects.

“This is the first time in American history that an entire library system has been threatened with shut down. Sometimes individual libraries are shut. (Closing the libraries are) unthinkable things that our community should not have to contemplate. It is shocking and unacceptable,” Mahaney said.

What the Community Stands to Lose

The proposed closure of the library system is “taking the heart out of the community. It’s leaving the community an empty shell in a way that it never was before. We’re in so many different communities, and we serve so many people, who have limited options. I can’t imagine what they could find to fill the void. The library system is 168 years old. It has survived everything from a great depression through world wars. It is inconceivable to think that it could come to an end,” Mahaney said.

The things that would be lost include story hours, computer training, and free lunchtime concerts, as well as public access to the libraries’ vast storehouses of books, CDs, videos, and other materials. Rare books would be pulled from exhibition and would be placed in a vault for safekeeping.

Far More than a Job

Mahaney, 52, has found a career and a home amidst the books, videos, and CDs. Thirty-one years ago, he was hired to shelve books in the Central Library. In 1977, just after graduating from SUNY at Buffalo with a master’s degree in library science, Mahaney became a reference librarian. He has worked in administration since 1990 and has been the system’s director for two years.

The library system is where Mahaney said that he found his closest friends and where he first met his wife. Mahaney said, “I have affection and respect” for the libraries and for their staffs and patrons.

The library systems has been through difficult times in the past, Mahaney said. In 1976-1977, the system went through a fiscal crisis, which resulted in the layoff of 40 percent of its staff. “Back then, a lot of really bright, talented, capable people were laid off, and they left. They became the leaders of libraries around the country. I would hate to lose more talent and commitment to something like this. These are people who are not just library assets; they are community assets. Erie County will be poorer if they have to leave,” Mahaney said.

Mahaney said that he intended to finish his career in the library system in Erie County, a community that has been his lifelong home. If the library system closes, however, he would have to look for options out of town. “I can’t bear the thought of this collapsing around us. It’s one of the finest library systems in the country. This is the best staff that I’ve ever encountered anywhere. It would be shameful to allow this to die.”

Citizen Responses to Proposed Elimination of the Library System

On November 28, at Erie Community College’s South Campus in Orchard Park, more than ninety individuals addressed the many budget cuts that have been proposed by the red budget. Many of them discussed the public library system. Mercedes Russow, a retired teacher, wanted to know, “What kind of tumor in the brain caused this?” She said that the county executive has proposed “taking away everything that makes life worthwhile.”

Ed Arnold said that his two children go to the library twice a week and that his wife meets friends regularly in the library. He said that Erie County’s excellent library system is a factor that keeps his family in the area. His wife is a native of Poland and libraries are a high priority in that country. “In Poland, every town, no matter how poor, has a library.”

Joseph, who held his small daughter as he tearfully addressed the members of the Erie County Legislature, said that he had just been at the Angola branch of the library. He said that he “loves taking the baby to the library, the botanical gardens, and the zoo. “She goes to the botanical gardens every Sunday, and she runs up and down the steps.”

Marsha of Orchard Park said, “Libraries are not expendable. They are where community happens. At the library, you find the greatest diversity of people.” She said that she recently took a Microsoft Word class with a group of older people at the library.

Abraham (Abe) Kenmore, a nine-year-old home schooler from Clarence Center, said straightforwardly, “I really like libraries. I like to browse. I have lots of interests.” As an example of the value of libraries to him, Abe said that he recently became interested in the history of music and was able to borrow fifteen books on the subject. “It’s hard to buy books and have money left over.”

“Libraries are fun places,” Abe concluded. In every city, town, and village, you’ll find a library. You’ll find a library in rich places, poor places, and in war-torn places. Libraries have existed for thousands of years as repositories of the world’s knowledge and as homes for the products of human creativity.