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Do we really need our libraries?

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In December, Amazon.com sold more e-books than it did paper books for the first time. By February, the nationwide Borders book chain was in bankruptcy. The well-intentioned people desperately trying to save Charlotte's libraries should take note of that.

I'm a voracious reader, and I'd still be reading paperbacks had my husband not bought me the Kindle I'm too cheap to have gone out and bought for myself. I was skeptical, but after my first e-book, I was hooked. It's an indescribably different experience — and a much-improved one — than reading a paperback.

My Kindle doubles as a dictionary, immediately giving me the meaning of any word I click on. Forget who a minor character is? No need to spend 20 minutes leafing through pages to find the first reference. And I can download a new book the minute it comes out in bed in my pajamas.

I haven't read a paperback since I got it. It would be like going back to cassette tape after burning your first CD. Who does that? Not many people, apparently. According to the Wall Street Journal, e-books went from .6 percent of the book market in 2007 to 10 percent last year and are expected to hit 15 percent this year.

The e-book craze will wipe out 90 percent of bookstores in a decade, the Journal forecasts. This message has apparently not hit home with the people trying to save our financially struggling libraries here in Mecklenburg County, but it's one being asked in a serious way in even broker places like Illinois, where Fox Chicago News recently questioned whether the state needed all of its 799 library branches, or even half of them. It's a question we should be asking here, where it costs roughly $40 million a year to keep the library system running. After cuts, a whopping 20 branches remain open in Mecklenburg.

(Editor's Note — April 27, 2011: According to cmlibrary.org, the FY 2009-10 Library budget, which began July 1, 2009, was approximately $35,372,946 with over $31.7 million of that amount coming from Mecklenburg County. In March 2010, the library received a $2 million reduction in FY 2009-2010 funding from Mecklenburg County. The FY 2011 Library budget, however, which began July 1, 2010, is approximately $25 million with $23.3 million of that coming from municipalities: $21.17 million from Mecklenburg County, $1.4 million from the City of Charlotte, and $730,000 five towns in Mecklenburg County.)

That $40 million would go a long way to filling the school budget gap. It is also very close to the amount of the tax increase that county commissioners are eyeing, a tax increase that will be a gut punch to a county that still has more than 30,000 fewer jobs than it did before the recession.

I visit libraries almost weekly, mostly for the children's activity classes held there by various groups around town. I still check out kid's books occasionally, but that's about it.

The main library is almost always buzzing with a respectable guest count — at the free Internet access computer terminals. I approach the book aisles in much the same way I would the alleys behind Uptown bars after midnight. I'm no longer convinced it's safe for a lone female to browse them alone since they are practically deserted and present a great opportunity for ambush.

Libraries date back to almost 2,000 B.C., and they still serve some of the same useful functions now that they did then — like archiving an area's priceless local history the way our main library's Carolina Room does. No way I'm willing to part with the microfilm of the Charlotte News from 1900 or centuries worth of priceless pictures and documents. We ought to keep at least one branch open for that and maybe a few more to house a copy of in-demand books. It would be much cheaper to offer public computer access in a large, vacant, big-box space in a strip mall somewhere that's centrally located.

The county library system should have no more than five branches tops a decade from now, including the computer farm. Libraries across the country are beginning to confront this reality, with 66 percent of them offering some form of e-books in an attempt to justify their existence.

Given that the bill for leaving the system as it is for the next decade comes to whopping $400 million, we should pause and ask ourselves whether all of this is really necessary.

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