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The Erie County Public Library administrators are holding a series of informational hearings on the proposed reconfiguration of the system. In addition to discussing possible branch closings, the Library Foundation hopes to raise and spend about $50 million to create high-tech branches.

Given the area's declining and aging population and precarious fiscal position, some questions need to be raised. Should the branch system exist at all? How duplicative are the services the libraries perform? Are public libraries responsive or even relevant anymore?

A half century ago, in the days of three-channel television and supermarket encyclopedias, it was politically appealing for the ribbon-cutters to pepper the suburbs with branch collections. Today, there are dozens of mail-order book clubs, discount book warehouses, wholesale vendors, Internet bookstores, auctions and flea markets. Most supermarkets carry out-of-town newspapers and sport better magazine sections than branch libraries. Thousands of county residents spend hefty monthly fees to wile away leisure time in front of cable television or search the Internet.

The current system costs county taxpayers $30 million annually. Because of huge building maintenance and overhead expense, it doesn't do much more than feed the utilities and pay the salaries of hundreds of workers to be custodians over expensive collections of schlock that seldom circulate.

For decades, two thirds of the entire book collection has sat sequestered in non-circulating, closed stacks in the downtown Central Branch, yet millions of dollars were squandered computerizing the card catalog.

The average national library branch serves 46,000 people. Our county system would need to cut about 30 of its 53 branches to get there. For what the Library Foundation wants to spend on still more brick and mortar, the county could give each private property owner a $500 voucher toward the purchase of a computer with Internet access, shut down the branches and save the taxpayers millions.



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