Walk into the Lakewood branch library, and here’s what you won’t find. Nothing by Raymond Chandler, the most influential mystery novelist of the 20th century. Or Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and Foundation Trilogy, without which much of modern science fiction wouldn’t exist. And none of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone detective series other than the last three books — which means the library doesn’t have the first 15 or so. Missing, too, are William Gibson’s cyberpunk landmarks Neuromancer and Count Zero.

 

          I mention this because August is city budget time, which means it’s also time for the library staff to put on their annual brave face and pretend that all is well. Because it’s not.

 

Nothing — not the streets, not the cops, not employee health benefits — has been savaged in Dallas in the past decade the way the libraries have been in our attempt to make city government leaner and meaner. Since the 1997-98 budget year, the number of what the library calls catalogued items (books, magazines, newspapers and the like) has shrunk by more than one-half million. The system’s budget, meanwhile, has increased by just 2.5 percent a year since then, and you don’t have to be a certified CPA genius to realize that a 2.5 percent annual increase will barely cover the cost of keeping the lights on.

 

Which explains why the Dallas Public Library has just three copies of the new, critically acclaimed translation of Don Quixote (and none at Lakewood ) — one of the most important books in the history of literature.

 

It’s difficult to explain why the library staff puts up with this. Periodically, we’ll call the branch and offer to write a hard-hitting piece about how they’re getting the short end of the budget shaft, and we’re always told that all is well, no reason to complain. And, considering the climate at City Hall, that approach probably isn’t a bad idea. The job you save may be your own.

 

But you don’t have to work for the system to see how horrible the situation is. There are 20 percent fewer catalogued items now than there were six years ago, and that’s inexcusable for a city that pretends to be world class, that thinks large (or whatever the silly marketing slogan is that the hucksters downtown came up with). When the Lakewood branch is displaying a four-year-old travel guide to London because it can’t afford to be buy an updated version, all the fat is gone.

 

I’m also not quite sure why the library is such a convenient target for the cranks on the council who keep insisting there is more fat to be trimmed from the budget. I’d like to think that it’s not because public libraries serve — shudder — the public, who aren’t all white and upper middle class and don’t live in gated communities and continually complain about property taxes being too high. I suppose, if I forced them to tell me, they’d mumble stuff about how the library needs to pay for itself and the city shouldn’t be in the book business and the usual sort of hocus pocus they’ve convinced themselves is true because all their friends think the same way.

 

Which is a shame, because public libraries matter. Whatever I have made of myself as a writer owes much to the public library in Deerfield, Ill. I used to ride my bike down

Waukegan Road

and come home through Jewett Park and in between stop at the library and check out books. Lots of books — magazines of plays for children and Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series and obscure science fiction about bug-eyed monsters on Venus. I read, and I wondered, and I learned.

 

And despite the Internet and Amazon.com and every pundit who claims books are obsolete, that is still going on. On the Monday afternoon in July when I stopped by the Lakewood branch to see what books it didn’t have, I saw what it did have — kids. They were in the stacks and typing on the computers and using the library.

 

Anyone who thinks that stuff is fat that needs to be trimmed probably needs to be trimmed themselves.

 


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