Outside the Hudson Area Library, two white lions seem to hang their heavy rusting heads and sigh. The building they guard, built in 1816 as a poorhouse, now serves as the public library for some 12,000 citizens in central Columbia County, and is in need of more than a few repairs. The whole structure slouches in a state of dignified neglect, somewhat self-conscious of its rotting moldings and crumbling mortar. Perhaps more important, the books inside, save a few recent New York Times bestsellers, give off the smell and aura of the Eisenhower Administration. Three of the library's four computers are crammed into the director's office, and like the director, Frank Rees, they seem overworked and in need of an upgrade. Rees knows all about these problems, and when asked about the future of his library, he seems despondent and hopeful at the same time. "The only proper way to support a library is through taxpayer dollars and we're not getting nearly enough," he says.
Libraries are just one of many public institutions in New York fighting to secure a shrinking pool of state money. In January, Governor Pataki's office proposed a five percent cut in statewide library funding. Many small public libraries (specifically those with a Chapter 414 qualification enabling them to ask for funding through public referenda) grow tired of waiting for funding increases from state and federal sources, and are now beginning to ask for direct local support. Of the 20 or so such referenda held in the last five years in our area, nearly all have passed successfully. "When people see just how few dollars libraries get these days," says Josh Cohen, executive director of the Mid-Hudson Library System, "they almost always realize what a bargain they're getting and therefore dig a little deeper to help out."
The Hudson Area Library's voters, however, are among the very few in the Hudson Valley who voted down budget increases last November, killing a proposal to roughly double general funding there. Despite an October 2003 Marist Poll in which 63 percent of households nationwide claimed that they would vote for an increase in taxes to support the library in their local community, voters from Hudson's suburb, Greenport, claimed that they were already overburdened by taxes. Greenport is more affluent and homogenous than Hudson, and some of its residents did not attempt to hide their disapproval for what they saw as a proposal that delivered nothing more than extra books for Hudson's minorities. "It's unfortunate," says Rees. "But we're making the most of the money we do have."
Reading aside, Hudson's library, just blocks away from Columbia County's largest low-income housing developments, is probably the only opportunity that many of the small city's residents have to access the Internet. Libraries have been in the business of books for millennia, but increasingly the public library is becoming the single place that affords all classes a chance to participate in the so-called electronic age. According to PBS's "Newshour with Jim Lehrer," only 39 percent of households earning less than $25,000 a year are wired. Many students from low-income families with no computers get access from either libraries or schools, which are also facing major cuts in budgets and staffing.
A CENTER FOR SOCIAL MOBILITY
The library has changed a lot since the turn of the last century when Andrew Carnegie and other robber barons erected reading temples throughout small-town America to seduce coal miner's kids to read the Classics. The idea of the library was simple: get the lower classes to read and they'll behave themselves, work longer and harder, and contribute to a more stable social order. While the rhetoric has changed over the years, the basic concept of the library as a center for social mobility has not. In 2000, the New York State's Regent's Commission on Library Services completed a study of new trends, from which they determined that the modern library must serve as a center for "information literacy," hinting that as American manufacturing jobs continue to vanish, new job seekers must learn how to access and manipulate many forms of data if they hope to earn a living. While the commission determined that the needs of today's readers and researchers are complex, they came up with a core of basic solutions to make the modern library more useful: expand libraries' weekend and evening hours, include more electronic databases, get the collections online, and of course, buy more computers.
In order to implement the reforms they outlined, The New York Board of Regents introduced New Century Libraries to the state legislature in 2003, a bill that asks for $108 million to fund a host of ambitious programs, including digitization grants, new construction, talking book and Braille libraries, and urban literacy initiatives. Many question the chances of the bill's passage at a time when the state is struggling to pay for basics, such as state medical insurance, pensions, and education. "Many of us realize that state money is very scarce these days," says Carol Desch, Coordinator of Statewide Services at the New York State Library, "but we're confident that the full reforms will eventually materialize if we can convince lawmakers that we have an urgent need."