The Human Side of the Ledger

MARCH brings daffodils, breezes, and--less eagerly anticipated--local budgets. Despite signs of a gradually strengthening economy, local elected officials are struggling with reduced revenues and increased demand for services. In times like these, why fund the Central Rappahannock Regional Library?

Think of the library as the bellwether of the economy. When times are tight, libraries see business booming. At the CRRL, we're checking out more books (1.2 million more than last year), answering close to a million reference questions, and experiencing a 50 percent increase in computer bookings. People are making a beeline to our libraries to seek and apply for jobs online, to use computers to connect with friends and family, to check out books for help with homework assignments, and to get help filing taxes.

The library is the one place in town where everyone is welcome, service is provided free to all, and no one minds if you park with your laptop for hours on end. Clearly, the public knows this: People are using libraries more than ever. Funding the CRRL is a good investment for several reasons. First of all, the CRRL offers unparalleled return on investment. Participating jurisdictions--Fredericksburg and Stafford, Spotsylvania, and Westmoreland counties--pay according to use. If residents of one county check out 40 percent of the books, that county is asked to fund 40 percent of the budget. It's simple, straight-forward, and fair.

But what makes this a terrific return on investment is that these residents, though they may fund only 40 percent of the budget, have access to 100 percent of the library system. They--and all library cardholders--can request books that are housed at any of the seven--soon to be eight--libraries in our far-flung system. They have access to all the databases, computers, and services, while paying only part of the total cost.

Funding the CRRL also appeals to fiscal conservatives because of the cost-effective way regional libraries are structured. A centralized administration serves the entire region, avoiding duplication of administrative services: one office for Talking Books for the Blind, one department to buy and process the books, and one IT department.

This regional structure is so cost-effective that the commonwealth rewards regional libraries through a formula that awards more state funding to them than it does to single-jurisdiction systems. This is money for books that the localities do not have to provide, and it makes a big difference in the library's budget.

But there is more to libraries than dollars and cents. It was Jefferson who said, "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government." Public libraries were first established in this country before the Revolutionary War with the intent of providing educational resources so that citizens could participate in their own government.

AN AMERICAN QUALITY

Most of those early libraries lacked one essential quality that distinguishes today's libraries: access for all. Benjamin Franklin and friends founded a library in 1731, but the Library Company of Philadelphia was open only to members who paid for the privilege. It was not until the turn of the last century that public libraries as we know them today--paid for by taxes, maintained by the government, and open to everyone--were widely established, leading scholars to call the public library an "American invention."

In the early days, libraries tended to see themselves as treasure houses where books were protected from untrustworthy readers, but by the mid-19th century thinking had changed. Now the guiding principle was connecting people with the books they wanted to read. Instead of banning children, public libraries welcomed them, and soon opened their doors to everyone.

From the beginning, libraries have played a part in acculturation. Immigrant families have always sought out the public library as their entree into American culture. Whether it was the Eastern European who came in through Ellis Island in the early 1900s, or the refugee from the Afghan war who settles in Fredericksburg today, new Americans come to the public library to find English language classes, to study for citizenship tests, and to introduce their children to the American way of life. ESL classes are held here, tutors and students meet at the library, and young mothers bring their babies to story times where they can work on their English and make friends.

LOCAL GENEROSITY

In Fredericksburg, a library was first established in 1822, but it didn't take off until Capt. C. Wistar Wallace bequeathed $15,000 to the city for the purpose of establishing a permanent library: the "Wallace Library." Opened in 1907, the library was in the building that now houses the Fredericksburg School Board, and then in the former Lafayette Elementary School.

Meanwhile, residents of Stafford County received library service through the generous work of Anne E. Moncure, a beloved educator who took it upon herself to bring books to the children of North Stafford in her own station wagon. Spotsylvania and Westmoreland counties had no public library service at all. In 1969, the Library of Virginia used federal funds to establish the Central Rappahannock Regional Library to demonstrate the value of public library service in areas that were unserved.

Since then, the jurisdictions have built eight libraries that are symbols of civic pride. Residents of our area enjoy top-ranked library service, including an award-winning Web site. Most important, our area supports the American values of an educated citizenry and free access to information for all through the foundation of democracy: our vibrant, dynamic public libraries.

Originally published in the Free Lance-Star newspaper on March 7, 2010.