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GUEST ESSAY: Libraries are essential and they need help
Guest essay

GUEST ESSAY: Libraries are essential and they need help

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Within the village of Whitehall, where many restaurants, retail stores and specialty shops have long since closed, there stands a red brick historical gem on Williams Street.

Built during the Civil War, it’s open for business to residents of all ages, and its services are free. The Whitehall Free Public Library serves 3,173 people, with books, WiFi and computer access, and Farm-2-Library. Yet beneath the charming exterior of the most resilient institution in town, and across libraries in the Southern Adirondack region, lie accessibility, health, safety and structural deficiencies that demand attention.

Libraries are the cornerstones of our communities, offering equitable access to educational advancement, economic opportunity, and lifeline services, but federal funding to support their repair, renovation and replacement stopped in 1997.

We can reverse course if the Build America’s Libraries Act, a bipartisan bill that would dedicate $5 billion to the construction and modernization of libraries nationwide, is passed. An estimated $254 million would be allocated for New York.

At the Whitehall Library, the children’s room is downstairs in the basement, and a child in a wheelchair would have to be carried. Narrow aisles also can limit access, and the limited space is challenging to utilize. The library is a microcosm of infrastructure issues plaguing nearly all of our 34 libraries in the consortium, covering Saratoga, Warren, Washington and Hamilton counties.

Most of the Southern Adirondack libraries were built well over 40 years ago, and many are in repurposed spaces whose architects could never have imagined today’s use.

The Caldwell-Lake George Library hasn’t had a major renovation since 1971. The Hudson Falls Free Library, built in 1916, was renovated in 1990.

Thankfully, New York provides some aid for library construction, but libraries must secure local matching funds, which is difficult in smaller and lower income communities.

The Caldwell-Lake George Free Library, built in 1906, lacks ADA accessibility and the outdated HVAC makes it uncomfortable on hot and cold days. Their facility plan will cost $354,696, but they haven’t been able to raise the local matching funds.

In recent years, we’ve seen a growing reliance on library technology. Our smallest library, serving 114 residents in Raquette Lake, served more than 2,000 WiFi users in 2019. Crandall Public Library in Glens Falls, one of our largest libraries, had nearly 36,000 computer uses. Still, we lack sufficient technology and broadband connectivity.

Whether big or small, our libraries set out each day to improve opportunities for residents within their communities, and provide equitable access to resources that will help them be successful wherever they go. As the pandemic recedes and Americans return to in-person activities, libraries will play an important role in rebuilding community life.

This National Library Week, April 4—10, let’s invest in our public libraries to ensure:

  • Safer, sustainable community spaces,
  • Accessibility for people with disabilities,
  • Increased broadband connectivity, and
  • Facilities that can support social services partnerships.

It’s time we let New York’s congressional delegation know how essential it is to strengthen and sustain our public libraries through the Build Americas Libraries Act, for now and for generations to come.

Sara Dallas is the director of the Southern Adirondack Library System.

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