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More than books…it’s our future! 

Sometimes it is easy to take the basic necessities of life for granted. While there may be a debate on what the basic necessities are, although they certainly include air, water, food, shelter and love, and what was a basic necessity yesterday may not seem like a basic necessity today, and when we lose one of these basic things it can be a painful process to restore it.

 In the United States, democracy has become one of those basic necessities; and from drawing on the walls of caves, to books, newspapers, films and the Internet, the honest sharing of information and communicating with each other is a basic necessity. These two basic needs go hand in hand.

 Before women had won the right to vote, Andrew Carnegie had already funded the construction of more than 2,500 free public libraries throughout the United States and around the world. Mr. Carnegie believed that the public library was a place where we all could come together to share knowledge. One of those libraries was established here in San Luis Obispo.

In Mr. Carnegie’s exact words, “There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.� Dedicated to free education for most of his life, Mr. Carnegie said, “It is the mind that makes the body rich. There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else. My aspirations take a higher flight. Mine be it to have contributed to the enlightenment and the joys of the mind. I hold this the noblest possible use of wealth.�

 When I was growing up in the San Fernando Valley, the Panorama City Public Library was a couple of miles away from my house. I still fondly recall the excitement and sense of adventure I felt when my parents first gave me permission to visit that library on my own. To this very day I can walk into any public library and feel right at home.
 Of course, public libraries have gone through a lot of changes, especially since I was a kid. Some 50 years ago, my childhood public library was full of books, card catalogs, and a few magazines and newspapers.

Today our public libraries are still full of books, but that appears to be all that remains the same. While the periodical section has never stopped growing, cassettes, videos, CDs and DVDs now compete for shelf space. Gone or going are the old card-catalog dressers, replaced by computers and Internet access.

 Since those days, I have come to believe that throughout our ever-quickening pace of evolving knowledge, changing priorities, and unintended consequences, the most important question we must never stop asking ourselves is, “What are we teaching our children?�

 How and what we teach our children has everything to do with where our tomorrows will lead us. Our libraries are opportunities to instill in our children a love of reading, which can help them develop the skills needed for a lifetime of learning. Connecting our children with our public libraries early in their lives may teach them more than anything else we could possibly say or do.

Therefore keeping our public libraries strong and healthy may be more important to the vitality of our democracy than anything else we could do. Can you imagine a time when everything is commercialized, including our public libraries? As our public libraries endeavor to keep up with the times, there is one thing that remains the same and I hope never changes: the principle of building, nourishing, and supporting our communities by providing rich environments for learning and the appreciation of knowledge.

 Here’s a choice. You can choose between exercising and eating fruits and vegetables; or you can sit in front of the TV while having a soda or a beer with a sweet or salty snack. What choice are many of us making? If an apparent unintended consequence of being a couch potato leads to obesity and diabetes, what might be the unintended consequences of not keeping our public libraries strong and engaging?

 Predictions about the future can be found everywhere. Sometimes looking to the past in other areas of life can be useful. Today, there are those who claim the Internet will make the public library obsolete. Fast and easy information is at our fingertips. The Internet seems to fit well with the present “Faster is Better� way of living. Yet, by the good grace of common sense, the State of California recently began to restrict the sale of fast food (salads not included) and sodas to our children while they are in attendance at our public schools.

 What might be the long-term unintended consequences on our kids disconnecting from the public libraries in favor of the Internet? Is it even remotely possible that by becoming too dependent on fast and easy information that our children eventually encounter some sort of negative impact on their minds and the way they think and relate to each other? Just look at the way too much fast food (and lack of exercise) has been affecting the health of our bodies!

 Until recently, California’s public libraries have been losing ground. Los Angeles, taking the lead, has seen fit to direct meaningful amounts of enhancement resources into its public library system. L.A. County residents have supported this library renaissance, despite their struggle with significant social problems, such as leading the country in the numbers of homeless. The Los Angles Times recently reported, “L.A. Renews Its Libraries as Modern Civic Centers: More than just housing books, the new and refurbished branches bring people together.� This is most encouraging, as California had been ranked near last when it comes to caring for its public library system.

 What will our children be like if they grow up without a strong public library system offering navigating guidance through the ever-increasing collage of pictures, sounds and written words? With expanded hours and maintenance of a current collection, our public libraries will continue to be beacons for raising self-esteem in many wonderful ways.

 The Foundation for San Luis Obispo County Public Libraries believes that strong libraries help build, nourish, and support our community by providing a rich environment for learning and the appreciation of knowledge.

 Beginning this year, the Foundation is launching an annual fundraising campaign: “More than books…It’s Our Future!� In addition to this year’s fundraising goal of $100,000 for current books and materials, the campaign will be reminding all of us to discover new things, to connect with our community, and to enrich our lives through our relationship with our public libraries.

 If we intend to have our public libraries in good repair, open more hours, stocked with current materials and technologies, our community needs to support this annual fundraising campaign, in a way similar to the way we have come to support public radio. To help, please visit one of our 15 branches nearest you or www.slolibrary.org.

 On behalf of the Foundation, we take great pleasure in thanking the hundreds of volunteers and Friends of our San Luis Obispo County Public Libraries for their thousands of hours and dollars that have been continuously or recently donated. In fact, the reopening of the Oceano Public Library was made possible by the efforts of volunteers and donations.

 The “More than books…It’s Our Future!� campaign needs to grow if our San Luis Obispo County Public Libraries are to flourish in the days to come. Had Measure L passed in November 2004, county residents would have noticed an annual sales tax increase of approximately $35 per person. If everybody who voted yes for Measure L donated $35 per year, that would make the difference.
 Can you imagine what might be the results of everybody foregoing only one soda, beer or snack (or even a latte) once a month, then donating the savings to our libraries? A strong and healthy San Luis Obispo County Public Library system is a legacy worth leaving to our children. ∆

Rick London is President of the Foundation for San Luis Obispo County Public Libraries. He can be reached at londonet@aol.com.

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