By Rachel Leon
I realize that my response to Corinna Curry’s Oct. 9 Rockford Register Star article on the library budget is quite delayed, but the library wasn’t opened long enough for me to research the topic. Jan. 18, 2010, the Rockford Public Library reduced its hours, a decision many of us are still trying to recover from. No longer are we able to visit our library in the morning but two days a week, and only the East Branch is open six days. We went from being able to visit the library on Mondays from 10 a.m.-9 p.m. to noon-8 p.m., or not at all if we intended to visit Main. And do I dare mention the hack job they did to Lewis Lemon’s hours? (Read: In half, they were cut in half.)
So, imagine my surprise when I read the library is setting aside $400,000 for electronic digital and audio books. $400,000 on materials that only a percentage of our city will have access to. We have no idea how many Rockford library cardholders own eReaders, but we do know our community is 63.29 percent low income. It seems safe to assume that very few of those of us who fall into that 63.29 percent own an electronic device that costs a minimum of $79, nor do I believe everyone that falls into the other 36.71 percent owns one. I would imagine many elderly do not, as well as people who find comfort in the feel and smell of a paper book. Of course, this could turn the corner into a whole discussion of eReaders vs. paper books, one that doesn’t interest me or pertain to my argument at all. The rising use of eReaders is not the problem.
And I agree that the demand for digital media is rising, but I think it is important to note that so is its accessibility outside of the library. Amazon.com now offers a Kindle Owner’s Lending Library, where owners can choose from more than 1,000 books they are able to borrow for free. That’s more than 1,000 free books that are only accessible to people with the income to afford an eReader. The rest of us have to contend with a cut in the rest of the collection — a 27.4 percent cut from last year’s allocation.
Rockford’s unemployment rate is 13.4 percent, much higher than the state (10 percent) and national (9.1 percent) averages. Our crime rates continue to soar. Where is our saving grace? I think the library, that wonderful institution that creates educated communities by promoting self-learning, lifelong learning, and self-improvement, levels the playing field for all city residents regardless of income, age, race, religion, gender or ability. And yet, the doors to this all-important institution continue to be locked more often than not; our library’s hours of operation are significantly shorter than smaller area libraries such as the North Suburban District Library. Our library offers computer classes, both conversational English and Spanish classes, food safety classes, and classes on how to pay for college. These programs can help us build job skills, something we need more of, not less.
Sept. 10, I attended the Rockford Public Schools Parent Leadership Conference, where keynote speaker Paul Logli gave an address. Anyone who’s listened to Mr. Logli knows he is an inspiring speaker, and I found myself nodding through his discussion of the problem of the digital divide. He then said something that made me scratch my head. He mentioned the growing importance of eReaders and a time in the near future when paper books would be obsolete. My shyness and love of the library battled as I tried to determine how rude it would be to raise my hand or yell out, “What about the library?” Before I could, he said he saw a future where libraries would go completely digital. I got chills (the bad kind that keep you up at night) when he said it, which only intensified after I learned he is the president of the Board of Trustees for the library. Right now, our city needs more hours, services and programming, not electronic resources. There may be a time in the future when it is time to increase our budget for these resources, but it strikes me as rather misguided to do so now, when so many of our residents need the library to be opened more hours so we have more time to search for a job so someday we can afford to buy eReaders, too.
Call for Action! Our library Board of Trustees (along with our mayor) need to hear how important the library still is to us! Please consider writing letters or making calls to the board members. Their names can be found on the library’s website (www.rockfordpubliclibrary.org). Under ‘About RPL’ there is a link for board members. Also, their board meetings are listed, typically meeting the fourth Monday of each month at 6:30 p.m. at the Main Library. It is important that people show that the cuts last year were not acceptable and that we are not willing to allow any more. It is time that the decisions of our elected and appointed officials are made for the ENTIRE city of Rockford and not just those who have the money to attend BMO Harris Bank Center events, to pay to check out the new conservatory, and to own eReaders. We need to make them accountable and let them know we want our city’s demographics considered when making decisions that will only pertain to a small percentage of our community.
Rachel Leon is a Rockford resident and member of the Friends of the Rockford Public Library. She is a mother and writer who depends on the services and materials that the Rockford Public Library provides. She is part of Advocates for the Rockford Public Library, a grassroots organization that opposes funding cuts.
From the Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 2011, issue