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Western New Yorkers love their libraries -- and never more than when they're in danger.

For proof, consider the outpouring of shock and anger that resonated across Erie County last week in reaction to the news that all 52 public libraries will close after Jan. 1 unless the county resolves its funding crisis.

Nearly 600 people have written to the library, railing against the cuts and describing ways that libraries have changed their lives.

Volunteers have set up tables at some suburban libraries to raise awareness. In other places, petition drives are under way.

And in Cheektowaga, 200 schoolchildren in the Maryvale School District started a letter-writing campaign to try to save the libraries.

"They're all excited about this," said Nicole Floss, 27, the eighth-grade English teacher organizing the effort. "This is a way they can make a difference."

The situation in Erie County appears to be unprecedented nationally.

At the American Library Association in Chicago, experts said that while library funding has taken hits across the nation since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, nothing has matched the cuts proposed in Erie County.

"Fifty-two libraries is a drastic amount (of cuts)," said Carol Brey-Casiano, the association's president and director of the El Paso, Texas, public library. "This situation in Erie County is the most dire we've seen."

For library lovers in the Buffalo area, the last few weeks have felt a bit like a flashback to 2000. Then, they fought hard -- and successfully -- against a proposed consolidation plan that would have eliminated some branches.

Now, these same patrons feel frustrated to be fighting yet another battle to keep library doors open.

"This is one of the most essential places on earth," said Virginia Kroll, a children's book author who writes her manuscripts in the Hamburg library. "Words have power. That's why I can't imagine a place like this closing down."

Others put it more simply.

"I'd be lost without the library," said Lucas McQuillan, 22, who signed a letter to elected officials protesting the cuts earlier this week. A Delta Sonic employee, McQuillan said he stops by suburban libraries three times a week.

"It's almost like closing a school down," observed Glenda Speight, a nursing home employee who visits the library weekly to use the computer and check out books. "There's so many resources here."

The county budget proposed by County Executive Joel A. Giambra would cut funding for the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library system by $19.3 million next year, to $4.9 million.

The Giambra administration claims such cuts are necessary to close a projected $130 million budget gap. Giambra chalks the gap up to Medicaid costs.

Because county funding determines how much state support a library system receives, library officials have estimated the libraries would take an even greater hit of about $23 million -- 80 percent of the system's current operating budget.

That deep a cut would leave the library scrambling to shut down, said Michael C. Mahaney, library director.

"We're looking at numbers that wouldn't even allow us to close down in an orderly fashion," he said.

This would not be the first time county libraries have been affected by a budget crunch. In 1976-77, the system took a hit deep enough that one city branch closed for good. Many employees were laid off, but most were called back to work in gradual stages in the summer and fall of 1977.

This time around, the county's library crisis appears to be unique.

Nationally, only a few isolated cases seem to come close. Seattle, for example, closed all its public libraries for two weeks in 2002 and another two weeks last year to close budget gaps.

Around Western New York, Chautauqua County will fund libraries next year at the same level as this year, said County Executive Mark Thomas.

In Niagara, Orleans, and Genesee counties, libraries may face some cutbacks, but nothing like the problem in Erie County, said Mary L. Brink, director of the three-county NIOGA library system. None is expected to close, even temporarily, she said.

In fact, no other county in New York appears to be considering such a wholesale cutback in public library services, according to experts at the State Association of Counties.

But Ken Crannell, the association's director of intergovernmental services, said other counties are looking at cultural organizations -- including libraries -- for possible spending cuts in the crisis over Medicaid, which affects counties statewide.

Some library patrons in Erie County were skeptical of politicians' motives.

"Cut the fat someplace else. I'm tired of that argument," said Jean Gunner, a working mother from Hamburg who takes her two sons to the library every week. "That doesn't hold water with me. It's like a threat. I think they think we're naive and ignorant -- well, we're not."

In the Erie County Legislature, the body now considering Giambra's proposed budget, even longtime supporters of library services worry about how to prevent the closings.

"I'm a proponent of the library. But how do we do this?" asked Majority Leader Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda. "It's a real crisis."


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