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LIBRARY SHOULD STRIVE TO CREATE AN EXEMPLARY 'SHOE BOX' SYSTEM

"Shoe box libraries are a thing of the past and cannot be sustained with the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library's limited revenue." So says Aaron Cohen Associates, the experts hired to examine our cozy, but crumbling and balkanized, library system.

A friend of mine, who quit the library system in anger, agrees that the library system is in a bad way.

But we cannot buy their statement that: "The traditional paradigm of a cozy facility situated in a quiet neighborhood is no longer to be emulated. Once, nearly everyone could walk to the local library. Now, in light of increasingly mobile American lifestyles, most people drive to the library or rely on public transportation."

This trend to driving everywhere is becoming burdensome, expensive, frustrating and is a major source of air pollution. Besides, it makes it hard for kids to get anywhere on their own. Let us not promote more traffic jams with this library renewal.

When I was about 7, my mom and dad showed me the way to a wonderful place, one of those "shoe boxes." From the outside, it looked like a little gray church. Inside, it was bright and cheerful, crammed with books and almost as quiet as a church.

I passed through pictures in the "Brownie" books and Saturday story hours. Then a gray-haired lady in pinch-nose glasses showed me the youthful-adventure section. I found frontier stories like "The Long Knives in Kentucky" and medieval battles in "The White Company." I was hooked.

I drove by that beautiful little Fairfield Library the other day. I had to keep driving. There is no place to park. I used to walk the mile or ride my bike there. That neighborhood is still closely packed. Thousands of people -- thousands of kids -- are within walking distance.

Cohen tells us that even without any parking, Fairfield's circulation is the third-largest in the city.

Yet Fairfield is one of the 11 of our 15 city "shoe box" libraries slated to be replaced by three large, remote state-of-the-art techno-libraries. I live in Amherst now, within walking distance of a library that will remain open. Residents of East Aurora are not so lucky. They will lose their village-center library.

The Buffalo and Erie County Public Library pays salaries and supplies books to the entire system. Towns own and maintain their own buildings, as does the city. The towns are well off and have decent facilities. The city branches are moldering.

There are 24 hiring authorities and no way to share staff between venues. Morale is fading under workloads that make part-time jobs full time and full-time ones impossible. Resources are allocated based on circulation, not on community needs. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Cohen recommends a massive centralization of buildings and governance for our library system. However, we do not need this opposite extreme based on the model of colossal and impossible-to-navigate supermarket with its traffic jams.

Spend the necessary tax money. Give us an exemplary "shoe box" library system. Rebuild and modernize them where they stand. Leave those branches walkable and bikeable. Hire enough of those good friendly people who know how to steer a kid toward some fun while he picks up the habit of lifetime learning.

LARRY BEAHAN is vice chairman of Niagara Group Sierra Club.
For writer guidelines, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Opinion Pages Guidelines, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240.

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