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A QUESTION OF LIBRARIES

Neighborhood libraries are like institutions in Erie County, and no one wants to shut one down. The problem is, there are 52 library branches in the system - some in desperate need of updating.

The questions are: How long can some of the aging libraries hang on, how much funding is available to keep them open and at what expense to the other branches in the system? It is not responsible to say no branch will ever close no matter what. That's why the suggestion by County Executive Joel A. Giambra's Who Does What? Commission to consolidate and upgrade the library system needs thoughtful consideration.

The county executive said a consolidation and streamlining plan could save $10 million across the system, which now operates on an approximately $30 million a year budget. Giambra proposed that the $10 million could be used to leverage $100 million to borrow funds to upgrade all remaining branches.

Sounds reasonable, but convincing residents to give up their neighborhood libraries is going to be a difficult task, to say the least. Library Board Director Diane J. Chrisman said it herself - library officials conducted 22 community meetings and "the public does not want libraries closed," she told Buffalo News reporter Charity Vogel. As a result, the board scrapped a plan to close 21 branches and build some hub libraries.

But wanting something and having the resources to pay for it are two different things. The public should examine the benefits of hub libraries or partnerships between libraries and schools.

That said, money ought not to be the absolute deciding factor in a consolidation process. In areas where transportation is an issue for poor families, such as in the inner city, it may make sense to keep a neighborhood library open even if it's not the most cost-efficient building in the system. But there are cases where consolidation could work.

Some officials are taking the initiative here. Democratic County Legislator Lynn M. Marinelli pulled together an ad hoc task force last year involving Tonawanda elected officials, high school principals, Ken-Ton library board members, the chairwoman of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, the Ken-Ton Chamber of Commerce and citizen-advocates. They are looking for ways to be more efficient, including the possible merging of school libraries with public libraries.

Marinelli is thoroughly aware of residents' desire to keep their neighborhood libraries. However, maintaining a library system with 52 branches may be self-defeating in the long run.

At the very least, alternatives should be examined that may mitigate the cost of running the system while providing taxpayers more value for their tax dollars.

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