Shelf Life Support

As libraries and literacy groups nationwide struggle with slashed budgets, communities like Austin's are asked to take up the slack

Libraries are in danger. Many systems across the country face crippling budget cuts that compromise their quiet influence. This is a crisis of which many are unaware. Among the few that are aware, there are unsung heroes working to staunch the cash hemorrhage that threatens the livelihood of the programs and services offered by their local branches.

When the Oakland Public Library system announced on April 22 that it needed the public to help take up the slack in its book budget, which had been slashed dramatically thanks to the city's shaky financial situation, writer Pamela Ribon took note. "I can't imagine having gone to the library as a kid and there being no books," she says. "Every week my mom would take me to the library, and we'd get a big stack of books -- it was just the best place when I was a kid."

So, she decided to do something about it. Leveraging her cachet as an Internet personality, Ribon, known to the blogging world as "Pamie," posted an entry on her widely read blog (www.pamie.com/may03/01may03.html) encouraging people to dig deep and donate a book off the library system's Amazon.com wish list (www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/registry/60GYH7KEXC7 ). Her approach was humorous, appealing to people's two main drives: self-improvement and access to sexually graphic materials. "I guess you don't want little Misty Everest of Oakland, Calif., to find out where babies come from," Ribon, a former Austin resident, wrote. "I guess you don't want Misty to have that important moment we all get too early in childhood, when we're face-to-face with a black-and-white pencil drawing of a vagina. You're going to take that moment away from Misty? That moment when she realizes that she can make people shoot out of her pee hole?" Ribon made a deal with her readers: Donate a book, and I'll post your name here so others can see how cool and generous you are. Who can resist that kind of peer pressure, especially on the heels of a note-perfect description of an almost universal childhood experience? Her readers' response was overwhelming.

"I really thought we'd get, like, 30 donations," says Ribon. "I mean, I just thought it would be funny to write about the library, really, because that's where you learn all kinds of dirty things; that's why I wrote the article that I did." As of this writing, Pamie.com readers from around the world have donated more than 500 books to the Oakland public libraries, not to mention those who have chosen to act on a local level, assisting their own city libraries.

Ribon, the accidental activist, watched her jokey little entry mushroom into something larger than she, attracting the attention of media outlets far and wide, as well as the ultimate activist, Michael Moore, whom Ribon met at BookExpo America in May. "He's going to try to do it for each city in the States," recounts Ribon. "He said that he wanted to do the same thing for all the libraries to increase awareness of the situation."

Ribon's attempt to shed light on the precarious situation many libraries find themselves in is just the beginning. "I think most people didn't know; I certainly didn't know. You just assume your libraries are taken care of, and a lot of people just don't go to libraries." Some critics of the grassroots movement to rebook public libraries think that libraries aren't necessary anymore because the chain bookstores seem to encourage hunkering down with an unpaid-for book or magazine in the shops' cafes. Ultimately, though, it's still a retail establishment -- you wouldn't go to the Gap, put on an outfit, and mill around the store for three hours; at the end of the day, the merchandise has to go back on the shelf.

That's the thing about the library: It's a socialist concept in its essence. Anyone can access any book at any time; all you need is an address and a place to put the card that says you're a member of one of the biggest clubs in the world. The question is: Who is responsible for keeping the libraries liquid? The government or the people?

This is a particularly troubling question in Austin, where more than 450,000 people hold library cards. That's 110% more cardholders per capita than 59 other American library systems serving similar-sized populations; conversely, the Austin Public Library's material budget per capita is less than half of what those other libraries have to spend. The demand will soon outstrip the supply, and the city may not have the cabbage to keep up. The Austin Public Library Foundation, in partnership with Waterloo Records and BookPeople, instituted Keep Austin Reading, a monthlong book drive that offered Austinites the opportunity to gift the city's libraries with books, music, and movies, either by donating at the point of purchase in those stores, or online at www.austinlibrary.org.

Community response was tepid yet steady. "It's been an educational process," says Margaret Henkels, executive director of the foundation. "The community is not necessarily used to thinking about helping the library except by volunteering." True to Austin's laid-back vibe, Henkels is not worried about the less-than-overwhelming response to the campaign. "We're just starting. I would say that this is a campaign that you build. We learned some things this year, and also the community started learning to think of these things. We're thinking about ways to make it bigger and to get more people talking about it."

Once people start talking, they may realize what an important role the library plays in people's lives. "A lot of people have a special library story," says Henkels. She tells the story of a man who, instead of wearing a class ring with a university insignia on it, wears a ring with the seal of the Austin Public Library, because that's where he got his education. And, as we all know, a little education goes a long way.

The education factor underscores the fact that keeping libraries alive has wider societal implications than providing book-lending services and Internet access to the general public. Not only will a kid engrossed in a book be less likely to kick up shit in the neighborhood and more likely to have a better vocabulary and writing skills, but a prisoner with access to books will be less likely to end up back in jail once he or she has been released. The New York Times reported in 2001 that prisoners who took classes while in prison were far less likely to return to prison within three years of their release. "Education is absolutely an essential part of rehabilitation," says Andi Shively of Inside Books, a books-to-prisons project serving the state of Texas. "That makes me wonder why it's the first thing to get cut."

Inside Books exists to fill the considerable gaps in prison libraries, sending prisoners the books they request free of charge. There are a number of reasons why Texas prisoners have shoddy access to the books they need to quench their thirst for knowledge, from budget cuts that keep libraries understaffed to guards who utilize unfair and arbitrary tactics in allowing prisoners their library time. As a result, Inside Books gets more than 500 requests per month from Texas prisoners, on top of the thousands of packages they have backed up due to a lack of funding. "We're looking at a situation where, to cover all our expenses, we need to raise $12,000 or $13,000 a month in order to keep up and take care of the backlog," says Shively. The project relies on donations and volunteers to sustain their efforts, but the project looks to be taking on Sisyphus-like proportions, all the while remaining under society's radar, despite the obvious benefits of education's role in rehabilitation.

Funding libraries on both sides of the razor wire, however, is an investment many seem reluctant to make of their own volition. Some critics say that if the public sector takes up the budgetary slack in lean times, the government won't feel particularly inclined to restore the budgets when the economy takes a turn for the better, despite the fact that many programs are shabbily funded even during a bull market. Ribon disagrees with the critics. "We're showing how important it is to us," she says. "We're showing that we do want our tax money to go to the libraries. It's our responsibility to demand it, to say that it is important to us, and to contact our representatives and say, 'This is important, don't let this happen.'" end story


Pamela Ribon reads from and signs her new book, Why Girls Are Weird (Downtown Press, $12, paper), on Tuesday, July 22, 7pm, at BookPeople.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Pamela Ribon, Austin Public Library, Inside Books, Margaret Henkels, Literacy Austin, Keep Austin Reading, Dagoberto Gilb, Debra Umberson

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