News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

February 28, 2009

MARK BENNETT: As counties assess fiscal priorities, libraries shouldn’t become easy targets

TERRE HAUTE — Only the Batmobile could’ve topped the Bookmobile.

Unfortunately, the Batmobile never drove up at Prairieton School. But the Bookmobile did, every month. For a small-town kid, stepping into that library on wheels felt like a Lewis and Clark expedition. I discovered tales of my sports heroes’ lives. I remember reading a thin young people’s paperback about a rising tennis star named Arthur Ashe. I learned how he mastered the game as a kid, despite racist laws barring blacks from playing on whites-only courts in his Virginia hometown.

The world, its grandeur and its injustice, opened up to me.

Small-town libraries in Indiana should not close. Yes, they cost money — hard-earned tax money. But they’re worth those pennies spent per $100 of assessed property valuation. Inside libraries, minds open and lives change. The books, newspapers, magazines, historical archives, genealogy materials, even auto parts manuals can enlighten any visitor, rich or poor.

America needs more education to compete in the global economy, just as President Obama stated last week. A public library represents the foundation of that learning, for people of all ages.

It’s no wonder that folks in small Indiana communities feel anxious about statewide changes regarding libraries.

This month’s announcement that Vigo County Public Library would close three of its five facilities caught attention around Indiana. Property tax caps instituted last year reduced the library’s funding, and forced the closures. While all library systems are re-evaluating services and costs, Vigo County’s reduction has been the deepest.

“It surprised me, because it was so drastic,” said Nancy Mattson, director of the Montezuma Public Library.

People’s choice

The new limits on property taxes aren’t the only complexity for small libraries, such as the one in Montezuma, a Parke County town of 1,100 people along the Wabash River. The Legislature is considering a law that would force all 92 counties to soul-search about the library services they’re getting — or not getting — and devise a plan to give every resident access to a library. By Feb. 1, 2010, a planning committee in every county must choose one of four ways to offer library service to all its areas. Those are:

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