RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Here's an encouraging statistic for all you book worms out there. The Pew Research Center finds that over 90 percent of Americans say public libraries are important to their communities. Still, as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports in this story in our summer series about public libraries, how that love translates into financial support varies widely from state to state.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Vermont can brag it's got more libraries per capita than any other U.S. state. You may not be surprised to hear some are remarkably quaint. In Ludlow, the library is a white clapboard Victorian, slightly frayed, ringed by lilies, and sitting by the side of a brook. Julia Baldwin lives in Ludlow. Here's how she describes her library.
JULIA BALDWIN: It's very small.
ULABY: Baldwin volunteers with the local Ladies' Aid society. It is the one and only reason Ludlow has this public library, even though it's just open just two hours a day, and only in the summer.
BALDWIN: No paid librarians. We function on donations, book sales, bake sales...
ULABY: Quilt sales, bazaars and legacies.
BALDWIN: Sadly, when people pass away and they had some association with the library, they also leave us some money.
ULABY: That's not just how the library in Ludlow works. That's how public libraries throughout Vermont work, says Jessamyn West. She's a Vermont public librarian who specializes in technology. She says almost two dozen public libraries in Vermont, including this one, still lack wireless Internet. That's partly because Vermont public libraries do not receive any direct support from the state.
JESSAMYN WEST: In Vermont, each library needs to individually support themselves, either through endowments - which is kind of a funny joke for most tiny, rural libraries - or through taxation process and the town meeting process, or whatever.
ULABY: So that means once a year, the town librarian has to go to a town meeting and not exactly beg, but make a case for funding for next year.
WEST: And the town can sort of vote up or down. It's sort of part of the job.
ULABY: Now Vermonters do tend to support their librarians, but this method of funding also makes their libraries vulnerable to the vagaries of, say, a Hurricane Irene or other disaster that could affect how towns allocate their money. Kansas, on the other hand, is a great state for public library funding.
JO BUDLER: When I look at the statistics, we look really good.
ULABY: That's Kansas State librarian Jo Budler, who explains that the state's public libraries are funded by a combination of locally generated taxes and state money.
BUDLER: Our total budget for this year was about 3.6 million.
ULABY: That state money pays for programs and resources used by almost 700 full-time librarians in over 300 libraries. Since the vast majority are small and rural, Kansas uses federal money to pay for a sophisticated interlibrary loan system. It lets users borrow books and DVDs from any public library in the state.
BUDLER: They can ask for it, and they'll get it within a day or two; and it doesn't cost much more than a stamp. It's about 47 cents an item, to ship.
ULABY: Kansas librarians are also working on a cutting-edge, one-state, one-card system - all this in spite of the fact that Kansas public libraries have lost about 50 percent of their state funding over the past 10 years. But that doesn't seem so bad to a librarian in Texas. Linda Stevens works at a public library outside Houston.
LINDA STEVENS: In 2011, 64 percent of the state library's budget was cut.
ULABY: What percent?
STEVENS: Sixty-four percent. It doesn't seem fair, does it?
ULABY: That sizable cut jeopardizes not only millions of federal dollars Texas libraries currently receive, but it eliminates some direct services.
STEVENS: I will tell you one now that hit every consumer in the heart: After 50 years, the summer reading program will no longer be underwritten by the Texas state library.
ULABY: That affects more than half-a-million kids in Texas who, without their libraries' guidance, slip into what's known as summer slide. That's important to remember when people question public libraries' value in the 21st century, says librarian Jessamyn West. People from all walks of life continue to use public libraries. But in a country with a pronounced and still-growing wealth gap, some of us depend on them.
WEST: They're the only place that people can go and get a free computer and the free Internet, for the most part, in America. And when you still have a country where 19 percent of Americans don't have any Internet at home, that suddenly paints a - sort of a serious picture.
ULABY: Of how important it is for these institutions to exist and to be funded, and not even lavishly funded, says Texas librarian Linda Stevens.
STEVENS: It kind of really is, in one way, an inspiration to get us to use our imaginations and innovate.
ULABY: Innovate is one way to describe the fundraising methods of supporters of a library in Troy, Mich. A few years ago, a tax increase to support the library was targeted by Tea Party activists. The libraries' supporters countered with a mock campaign calling for the library to be closed and its books burned. Bringing the choice to fund public libraries into such sharp relief might have helped the vote to support the library pass by a landslide.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
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