Libraries have historically operated as institutions that provide opportunities to the disenfranchised in the United States. The first free libraries we set up because our founding fathers understood the need for free and unfettered access to education in order to get ahead in life. Of course, there are many reasons today that people turn towards libraries to get the help they need to pull themselves up. For example, libraries provide access to help with resumes and job applications, programs to attain GEDs and access higher education, and even support for anyone seeking to start their own businesses. No other institution, public or private, does a better job of reaching people who have been left behind in today’s economy.
Yet, across the country we are seeing a dramatic decline in the ability of libraries to serve their communities. This is largely due to the lack of investment in the infrastructure of libraries.
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In places like New York there is a staggering crisis with failing library infrastructure disproportionately impacting communities that need them most. For example, the Brownsville Library in Brooklyn has such severe problems with its air-conditioning system that it has to close on the hottest days of summer. Water has damaged the ceiling over a heavily used Chinese-language section at the Ulmer Park Library in Brooklyn. The report also cited overcrowding at the Corona Library in Queens and restrooms that were often out of service at the Port Richmond Library on Staten Island.
In Maryland, one of the nation’s wealthiest states, according to a November 2019 statewide facilities needs assessment, more than half of the public library buildings are over 25 years old. Consequences of this aging infrastructure are:
- 17 buildings need a new roof
- 10 facilities require alterations for ADA compliance
- 17 libraries have HVAC systems that are at the end of their useful life
- 42 buildings require technological upgrades in order to provide 21st-century library services
- 59 existing facilities require general renovation at an estimated cost of $75,000,000
- 11 buildings have been identified for replacement with a new structure at an estimated cost of $63,000,000
If we want libraries to continue to serve their communities then we need to support the infrastructure that makes that work possible.