Public libraries' benefits far outweigh their costs
Hawaii's libraries are regaining some of the service hours that were cut because of funding shortages.
RESTORING some lost hours at state libraries
is good news after several years in which lack of funding forced closing their doors to patrons about two days a week.
Although the libraries have gained back half of the service hours cut in 2003, they remain 100 hours short of what had been available previously.
That's 100 hours when children, students and adults aren't able to get to books and other materials for learning and pleasure, a shame because public libraries are essential in raising intelligence and human awareness. They are one of the greatest benefits of and for American society.
Library hours were curtailed when Governor Lingle imposed spending reductions on all state agencies due to revenue shortages three years ago. As Hawaii's economy has improved, the state has loosened its purse strings enough to keep some library branches open longer than 40 hours a week.
However, a temporary hiring freeze Lingle also imposed led to staff vacancies that left 135 jobs unfilled in 2004. Just 69 vacancies now remain, but hiring has proven difficult with the state's low unemployment rate and with workers retiring or departing for other reasons. Until staffing is stabilized, increasing library hours will be problematic.
Library officials are wisely looking for other ways to provide services, offering e-books and online resources that don't require bricks and mortar and staff presence. These should be expanded, particularly for underserved rural areas and on the neighbor islands.
Officials also are hoping to decentralize the library system's management. At present, 49 of the 51 branches report to a single administrator on Oahu. The new structure would have district offices on Kauai, Maui and Hawaii to oversee branches on those islands, and another for Oahu.
The plan, which will be tested on Maui, makes sense. Rather than having decisions and problems funneled through one person, each district administration will be able to act faster and tailor services to fit its needs.
The plan will be presented for legislative approval as early as next year. Lawmakers should adopt the proposal, though it will require more funds. The state's robust economy should supply enough revenue, but even when money is tight, libraries should be among the last agencies to face budget cuts.
People are more in need of libraries in lean times when families can less afford to buy books or pay for other entertainment, and when adults are looking to improve skills for better jobs. Few government programs are as worthy of tax money as public libraries.