Well, at least they provided Ohio’s schoolchildren with a great example of irony.

Fifteen months ago, a diverse group of protesters assembled along the north face of the Ohio Statehouse.  We carried signs and made speeches voicing our displeasure over the governor’s intention to cut state funding for public libraries by 30% in an attempt to formulate a balanced biennial budget.  The proposed $227 million reduction came on the heels of a 20% funding cut with which libraries were already contending.  With 70% of Ohio’s public libraries operating solely on state funding, the overall 50% cut threatened to dramatically reduce library services.

Alas, our impassioned dissent had minimal budgetary impact, if indeed it made any difference at all.  The General Assembly ultimately agreed on a net 30% decrease for the biennial budget, obviously an improvement over the original proposal.  However, so draconian was the initially suggested cut that the whole ordeal had the tainted odor of insincere political maneuvering.  Threaten the populace with an outrageous budget cut, let citizens cry about it on the steps of the Statehouse, and then appear to be responsibly responding to the will of the people by softening the reduction.  Call me cynical, but it doesn’t seem much different to me from the negotiating tactics of administrative management, labor unions, and car salesmen.

Here in Columbus, the funding cut provoked service reductions that have now been in effect for over a year.  Library operating hours were reduced by 18 percent.  Acquisition expenditures were slashed by 40 percent, reducing the purchasing budget to a level not seen since 1988.  Employees took a hit, too, with a 5% cut in salaries and a 10% decrease in hours for non-salaried staff.  The worst thing about these compromises, however, is that they are merely chewing gum plugging a boat leak until the hull can be fixed.  If that essential repair, in the form of a November levy, is not made, the library will take on water so quickly that it will be forced to close branches just to survive.

Maybe this doesn’t sound like that big a deal in the context of our troubled economy.  Some might even consider a library more of a luxury than a necessity.  This point of view is understandable when it originates from a community that is served by a mediocre library, but the Columbus Metropolitan Library is no mere collection of books.  It is regularly recognized as one of the top institutions of its kind in the country, most recently earning the accolade of 2010 Library of the Year from Library Journal.  Those who use its services know that the CML is a significant positive contributor to the quality of life in Columbus.

I believe that our enjoyment of life is enhanced when everyone has unrestrained access to a vast and varied lending library of publications in all major media.  One’s personal development and continuing education is encouraged and enabled by the free availability of information covering the entire spectrum of humanity and inclusive of opposing philosophies.  There is nothing quite like being able to sample from an enormous buffet of books and to indulge any interest until the curious mind is satisfied.

No, not even the mighty Internet can replace such a resource.  A good library provides a tangible experience offering knowledge in depth and an explosive potential for serendipitous discovery.  It is a temple of learning where our needs can be met and our whims may be entertained.  It is a sanctuary from commerce  and political bias.  It is a place where knowledge is treasured and wisdom is revered.  A good library is simply one of our better ideas.

I’ve been taking full advantage of the many services offered by the Columbus Metropolitan Library for years.  Every so often, I stop and marvel at the magnitude of what is available to me, and I inevitably conclude that the library system seems too good to be true.  Yet it is true as tax dollars, and thank goodness for that.  From the comfort of my home, I have constant access to the library’s electronic catalog, which allows me to search among an extraordinary collection of 3 million items.  Should I see something I like, I can reserve it and have it sent to the branch of my choice.  The borrowing limits are generous, permitting me to have up to 50 printed items, 30 audio titles, and 10 video titles in my possession at any time.  As a teacher, I also carry an Educator Card, which entitles me to a further 50 books for classroom use and even forgives the first $25 in fines.  I can renew items or pay fines anytime online, and should I desire a book the library does not own, I am likely to find it through their interlibrary loan program, which obtains titles from around the state and beyond.

I have staggered out of the library with stacks of books taller than my arms are long.  I have borrowed a couple dozen copies of the same title to help my students learn how to gather relevant facts for informational reports.  I have checked out library editions of new releases on the very day of their publication.  I have done research using the library’s access to premium online resources.  I have prepared for important exams, found numerous titles for graduate college courses, introduced myself to new music, acquainted myself with classic films, learned important lessons from history, exposed my mind to ideas that have changed my perception of the world, and taught myself how to change the front disc brakes and rotors on a 1990 Toyota Tercel hatchback.  That’s just the icing on the cake when it comes to describing my dependence on the library.

And that’s just me.  It’s not counting the ways in which my wife and our two daughters have benefited from a top-rate library system.  Nor does it cover the tens of thousands of students who have been assisted by the Homework Help Centers, unemployed adults who have been aided by the Job Help Centers, and kids who have been engrossed in the Summer Reading Program.  This library that is undervalued by our state government has done a lot of good for a lot of people.

Excellence in public institutions does not occur by accident, nor can it be maintained without vigilance.  What a senseless waste it would be if those of us with the good fortune to be served by one of the best libraries in the nation were to regard our cherished institution’s plight with cold indifference or hostility.  Unfortunately, if we were to allow that to happen, we would be getting only what we deserve.

As Joni Mitchell once succinctly observed in Big Yellow Taxi, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?”