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With Erie County enduring its most painful fiscal crisis in years and library-lovers enduring a large share of the pain, perhaps it is time for county leaders and residents to revisit the idea of scaling back a library system that is simply too big for this shrinking region to afford.

Libraries are vital to any community. They are portals to the worlds of knowledge and entertainment for all, including those who can't afford more expensive entries to those worlds. And they are assets to any neighborhood.

But with 52 branches, the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library is far larger than those in similar-sized areas. And most of those areas have stronger economies than Erie County, whose primary municipality is one of the nation's poorest cities. Bluntly put, an overtaxed, underperforming region such as this has no business maintaining a library system that redefines the word bloated. It is time, as they say in the private sector, to downsize to excellence.

The county's sprawling library system did not cause the fiscal crisis that has put libraries, theaters, sheriff's patrols and just about every other nonmandated expense at risk. But it is a symptom of what ails us, representing an inclination to cling to the past even when it makes no sense.

There was fierce public opposition to a proposal to close 21 branch libraries and build some hub libraries a few years ago. There has been lukewarm reaction to the subsequent offer by County Executive Joel Giambra to build a modern, new library in any community that closed two branches. As a community we seem utterly devoted to the status quo, as though "Thou shalt have 52 libraries" were written on a tablet somewhere.

Although the county's financial crisis arises mainly from the state's high-cost Medicaid program, the region's refusal to acknowledge in substantive ways its dwindling population and shrinking economy makes the task of coping with its problems vastly more difficult. And as the public hearings on the plan to close library branches demonstrated, this is not merely a failing of county legislators or other government leaders. The same taxpayers who are pulling their hair out over skyrocketing public expenses fairly shouted their opposition to any closures a few years back.

But priorities are subject to change, and with the prospects of vastly diminished county services and significantly higher county taxes, residents should be ready to consider the advantages of scaling back an overgrown library system in an orderly, predictable and manageable way. With an eye toward such factors as costs of maintenance, ease of access and the goal of systemwide sustainability, county residents could begin moving toward a more logical and useful distribution of libraries.

Indeed, there seems no good alternative to that. The other choice, in a high-cost county in a high-cost state, is to hope that the next crisis does not simply wipe out the system. Better to acknowledge the reality of a shrinking population than to toy with the immutable forces of economics.

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