When city officials cut the Hartford Public Library's budget earlier this year, and when the budget reduction forced the closing of two library branches, hundreds of angry residents turned out to protest.
That Hartford residents would fight for the library is a tribute to Chief Librarian Louise Blalock, who announced her retirement last week after 15 years.
Some in city government think the librarian's role is simply to hand out books. Ms. Blalock took a broader view. She made the library a cultural and intellectual center of the community.
Ms. Blalock is probably most closely associated with the $42 million renovation and expansion of the main downtown library building, which turned a dark, drab and uninviting building into a bright, open and welcoming one.
The next challenge was filling the building. Ms. Blalock and her staff — she attracted an outstanding one — offered an array of classes, concerts, readings and lectures. More than 1,200 youngsters a day take advantage of homework programs downtown and at the branches. The main library is the site of well-attended political debates and forums. On most days, the downtown branch is packed with people of all ages, races and levels of income.
There have been a few rough spots, including well-publicized charges earlier this year of safety and security breaches at the downtown branch. The library has to balance access with security, and erred on the side of openness. But the library has clamped down, and a security task force continues to improve safety.
The past two decades have seen a revival of urban libraries across the country. Ms. Blalock, a resolute, energetic woman who looks much younger than her 74 years, brought that spirit to Hartford. Instead of cutting its budget, city officials should reopen the branches and use this marvelous asset to promote the city.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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