On January 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 9 a.m.-9 p.m. to noon-8 p.m., or not at all if we intended to visit Main. And what about the hack job they did to Lewis Lemon’s hours? (Read: In half. They were cut in half.)
The library is currently 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. Of course, it is not likely that everyone who falls into the other 36.71 percent owns one. Many elderly probably 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 pertain to this discussion at all. The rising use of eReaders is not the problem.
It is true that the demand for digital media is rising, but 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? It is 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.
On September 10, Paul Logli was the keynote speaker at the Rockford Public Schools Parent Leadership Conference. He discussed the problem of the digital divide. He then mentioned the growing importance of eReaders and a time in the near future when paper books would be obsolete. He said he saw a future where libraries would go completely digital. It is important to note that Mr. Logli is currently the president of the library's board of directors.
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 seems 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.