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Since When Are Libraries Expendable? : County budget: It's a sad commentary on our values that we'll put books out of reach in order to put crooks behind bars.

July 19, 1993|HUELL HOWSER | Huell Howser is a reporter/producer whose programs appear on KCET-TV, Los Angeles.

When it happens, the TV news cameras won't be there. It's not sexy enough.

When it happens, the politicians certainly won't be there or available for comment--unless it's to point the finger of blame at someone else.

But when it happens, it will indeed be a historic day for Los Angeles County and its citizens, a day that will forever be recorded as a turning point in our society, an example of a value system gone completely berserk and out of control. A day of embarrassment for all of us.

The day we close our libraries.

Most people don't even realize that it's about to happen. If reported at all, as part of the county's severe budget crunch, it definitely has been overshadowed by the bigger and more sensational news that the county might have to lay off law-enforcement personnel and actually close jails. These days it's politically correct to play to our legitimate fears of crime and criminals. The sheriff has requested a budget of almost a billion dollars, and he's going to get it. We'll be able to keep people in jail and out of our faces for at least one more fiscal year.

Meanwhile, we will ever so quietly go about the dirty business of closing exactly half of our county libraries. Forty-three libraries, to be exact, will be shut down, boarded up, put out of business. All of the remaining branches will have their hours cut in half, no new books will be bought, all periodicals will be canceled and 800 individuals, including countless professional librarians, whose lives have been devoted to the betterment of us all, will be unceremoniously fired.

All of this because we and our elected officials can't find $30 million to keep the library system intact.

Of course, it's easy to blame the politicians--they have a way of making themselves easy targets. But a lot of the blame rests squarely on our shoulders.

In our country, ever since Ben Franklin's day, public libraries have always just been there, free and available to everyone. The local library was part of growing up, part of the Norman Rockwell image we all carry around of what America is all about. And because they've been there in the past, we've all grown complacent and assumed they'd always be there in the future.

The last time libraries were closed and "books were burned" was way back in Hitler's Germany. I mean, nobody closes libraries these days.

Except, of course, in paradise, where obviously we've all been out in the sun so long that we actually have come to believe that our tax monies are better spent arresting and locking people up after they've gone bad than spending a pitiful few cents on our kids to help them stay good. We lock criminals inside our jails and lock kids outside our libraries. Perfect logic.

So, it appears the criminals have won. Our time and money and resources are spent on them while the good law-abiding citizens of our communities are penalized. The word is out around town: The way to get attention (and money) from the system is to break the law. And the quiet librarians along with the decent people who use the libraries to read and study and learn and try to better themselves have found out the hard way that they're not very important in the scheme of things.

And soon our so-called civilized society here in Southern California will be able to chalk up yet another first: We'll be able to hold the distinction of closing more libraries than any other place in America.

Shame on us all.

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