During a packed public hearing at Hartford's city hall Monday concerning the closing of the Hartford Public Library's Mark Twain and Blue Hills branches, a young woman told the city council about her dreams for the future. She urged them to keep the branches open, because "with knowledge everything is possible."
Unfortunately, it looks as if her dreams, and those of the 100,000 patrons who use those two branches annually, are being thwarted. Since May, when the front-page article about patrons' alleged bad behavior at the library's Main Street building was published in The Courant, I have been following the trials and tribulations of this institution, which enriches the lives of thousands of people from Hartford and throughout the state. Anyone with a library card from any town in Connecticut can borrow books from the city library's extensive collection. The library's free cultural, educational, language and other programs are also open to all.
I consider myself a friend of the Hartford Public Library. Through the years I have attended numerous programs there, participated in poetry readings and presented writing workshops for teens and adults. I served as the honorary chairwoman for last year's "One Book for Greater Hartford," which celebrated Cristina Garcia's "Dreaming in Cuban," and also attended the celebration to inaugurate the new building.
It is probably because of my personal connection to the Hartford library, and the crucial role that libraries and librarians played in my own education, that I was stunned to read the online responses to The Courant's article in May. Mostly negative comments were posted by many readers from Connecticut and others from outside the state. Astoundingly, some were blatantly racist and misogynistic, while others were personal attacks against Chief Librarian Louise Blalock.
One writer who identified himself as "Just a Guy" from West Hartford wrote: "It is surreal and scary: library staff juxtiposed with bums and loafers. ... I do not go there anymore because of this. Its just too weird." Another reader replied to him and added, "Hartford has to clean up it's streets, get rid of the human litter and create a better image to attract anyone downtown."
Jimmy the Greek, from New Britain gave us a racist history lesson: "It began in the late 1950s when the city had a liberal welfare policy, people flocked to Hartford from the South and from Puerto Rico for the free benefits, now you have the results, a dying city." He also suggests that Hartford open two separate libraries " — one for blacks/Hispanics and one that's 'White Only.'"
Many of the more than 300 comments posted were directed against the city. Several raised the issue of homeless people gathering at the library for want of another place to spend their days. Mayor Eddie A. Perez has failed to indicate what he intends to do to about homelessness. Instead, he criticized the library for not spending more on security. Now that the library's proposed budget has been cut by the city, I wonder how much extra security it will be able to afford.
In 2002, the library received the National Award for Library Service. It is time that citizens and politicians also recognize the Hartford Public Library as one of the most vibrant and important icons in the cultural and educational life of this city and come to its defense.
To save the branches, the mayor and the city council are proposing chipping away at the library's staff and services by reducing library hours at the main library and branches, as well as cutting programs and using the library's endowment, which would deplete the principal in a few short years.
While Hartford faces staggering high school dropout and illiteracy rates, the mayor and city council's failure to restore the library's budget is an affront to all of us who care about the future of Hartford and the state.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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