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Originally published Monday, October 18, 2010 at 4:12 PM

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Guest columnist

Cutting librarians cuts out the heart of communities that need them most

Mayor Mike McGinn has proposed to cut on-site librarian services at eight Seattle library locations. Guest columnist Justin Sundberg says there are other measures of the value of these services than the volume of materials checked out of the library. The City Council should reject the proposal.

Special to The Times

MY family lives in New Holly, a mixed-income Seattle Housing Authority Neighborhood in Southeast Seattle. Despite lower income levels than many affluent parts of the city, in one important way, it is the richest neighborhood in Seattle because of its diversity.

Mayor Mike McGinn, however, has proposed budget cuts that would slash all on-site librarian services at the New Holly library and seven other library locations, carving the very heart out of southeast Seattle and other parts of the city. Seattle's status as most educated city in the United States is intrinsic to our identity, but we cannot hope to retain that badge of honor if we remove from our midst the most democratic and foundational resource for adults and children to educate themselves.

The Seattle City Council must reject cutting librarian services at these vital libraries and preserve this invaluable resource as ongoing equity for neighborhoods in dire need of support.

My family carpools with a Somali family to a local preschool. Faduma, the mom, works at home and her husband drives a taxi 70 hours each week. They moved to New Holly because the city designed our neighborhood for success — and Faduma's family is succeeding! One of their school-aged children transferred to a Seattle Public Spectrum school with programming for gifted children.

The success of Faduma's child today is yoked to a day 12 years ago when the city committed to build a new library in New Holly, twice the size of the previous dilapidated, postage-stamp building. It is New Holly's crowning jewel, providing the means for families like Faduma's to raise educated children.

A single criterion, material circulation, guided McGinn's proposal to cut funding for librarians at eight branches: New Holly, Fremont, International District/Chinatown, Wallingford, Montlake, Madrona-Sally Goldmark and South Park. However, this alone is an inaccurate gauge of a library's value. A simple visit to the New Holly library on any given day reveals an overwhelming number of people in community circulation, as our neighbors and their children flood in, relying on a personal relationship with the librarian to study English, research health issues, and seek homework support, among many other services.

Reducing or eliminating librarian services would actively prohibit our neighbors from accessing the invaluable resources currently being significantly utilized; it is a step in the wrong direction. The vibrancy of the New Holly library is stunning, and its importance in our community can only be measured in people, not products.

Last Wednesday evening, 14 children and youth from New Holly, in addition to a number of adults, spent hours at the City Council Budget Committee hearing, to sharing personal stories of the value of the personalized support, direction and learning we have received over the years from our beloved Lupine Miller, New Holly librarian. One of our Eritrean youth said, "having the library without a librarian is like eating cereal without milk."

Branch librarians know us, their many patrons. They know our needs. And they know our names. They inspire, encourage, direct and resource us in a way that cannot happen otherwise. With only online resources, libraries will become a severely inaccessible and unutilized resource.

Cutting staff at the New Holly library — one of the busiest and most dynamic libraries in Seattle — and others like it, must be boldly resisted. Budget cuts require difficult decisions; a more nuanced approach, however, is needed for our city's library budget.

Instead of shells of libraries without librarians, we should consider reducing library hours, printed material expenditures or administrative costs. Removing librarians from places where they are most needed is embarrassing and an affront to basic justice. We are counting on our city's leadership to maintain librarian services, especially those serving such a rich fabric of our city's population.

Justin Sundberg lives in the New Holly neighborhood.

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