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Press & Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, NY)

March 25, 2003

GUEST VIEWPOINT - Libraries part of society's infrastructure


Section: OPINION
Page: 08A

Estimated printed pages: 3

Article Text:

"My folks were drunks. I was an outcast at school. Then, when I was in the eighth grade, a librarian in a small town in Minnesota got me to read -- and it saved my life. It had that much effect on me. I went to the library to get warm. She got me into books."

This is a quote by author Gary Paulsen, who is one of the most popular writers for young adults. He has more than 200 books to his credit, fiction and nonfiction, along with two Newberry Awards.

I have taken quite an interest in his work in my position as school media specialist at Newark Valley High School. He is a great storyteller, with many of his novels dealing with the themes of nature, survival, the outdoors or rural life.

Many of his "tales" are based on true life experiences. These are great books to have for young people who are reluctant readers or who want stories that match the terrain and life of upstate New York.

Paulsen's history gives me pause to think about my influences and those factors that led me eventually to pursue library science as a career.

I certainly must give much credit to my parents. Both were children during the Great Depression, but that did not stop them doing well in school or having a love for books and learning.

My father, in particular, had a natural attraction to the printed word. He was also quite a nature lover and created his own organization called the Independent Bird Club, with its own library. Whenever we went on shopping trips or traveled, rummaging through second-hand book stores or places like the Open Door Mission was a high priority. No excursion was complete without fondling some discarded piece of literature purchased for a few pennies.

This kind of attitude and experience encouraged me and my siblings to love books and consequently helped us succeed academically.

Libraries and the people who staff them play an important role in society. They are especially critical for people like Paulsen who do not have a support system in their home that encourages reading.

It saddens me deeply to see how libraries around the country are trimming back on hours, staff, programming, size and currency of the collection. In places such as Binghamton, entire branches are being closed.

My concern is not simply with libraries, but with our entire human services infrastructure, the "roads and bridges" upon which we develop and inculcate the values of our form of government and give our citizens, especially the young, the tools necessary to make informed decisions and live in greater accord. We are now in a situation where educational institutions, social service departments, governmental services, museums, etc. are in competition for a shrinking monetary pie.

You can read reports, testimonials, studies, etc. that will stretch from the Southern Tier to the ancient library in Alexandria regarding the importance of a well-developed and well-funded library program. But what good does it do to keep a higher level of funding for libraries if it means that services for underage school children will be curtailed? What kind of victory is there in having probation services kept at current levels if treatment programs for those with substance abuse problems will subsequently drop?

Maurice J. Freedman, president of the American Library Association, said: "Libraries are losing budget battles. Our political leaders are tuning their backs not just on libraries, but the entire social safety net. This includes taking care of libraries as well as the homeless, the battered, the unemployed, and those without health care."

This bloodletting of our human services infrastructure and the downward spiral of our economy does not come as a compete surprise. When so many people were marveling at the rise of the stock market and the seemingly endless economic advance America was experiencing, there were too many artificial props maintaining our level of "prosperity."

The budget decisions we face are extremely difficult. Certain programs may be dropped, and revitalization may take a very long time. In some cases, the loss of morale and expertise could be even more devastating.

In the meantime, we are faced with the prospect of all those Gary Paulsens out there who will have fewer opportunities to have someone or some program show them the way to a more meaningful, fulfilling existence.

Nizalowski is school media specialist at Newark Valley High School.

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Record Number: bng2003032610320301