THERE are those of us whose memories of libraries include hushed tones, the feel of pages softened by time and handling, and, mostly, the smell of books - an intoxicating perfume of old paper, binding glue and the traces of the hundred other readers who turned those pages before us.
That's as old school as it gets, especially considering today's libraries, in which actual books play a secondary role to coffee bars, computers, DVDs, CDs, community meetings and the sound of loud homework sessions - or the snoring of sleeping patrons.
We know that in any other city we'd risk prompting the same snoring by writing about libraries - this is National Library Week - but we also know that Philadelphia is no ordinary city. After all, Ben Franklin founded the first public library right here in 1731.
To their credit, libraries around the world, and in Philadelphia, have been modernizing, staying relevant in an age of Nooks, Kindles and iPads. As evolved as they get, libraries remain one of our great democratic institutions, not only as champions of free speech, but also of making sure that everyone has access to that speech. And by providing computers and technology to the general public, libraries are at the front line of making sure that the digital divide doesn't get any wider.
Ten years ago, the Free Library's reference librarians answered more than 3 million questions. Despite the ubiquity of Google, it's notable that about the same number of reference questions were answered last year by the library. In fact, much library usage has remained constant over the past 10 years: more than 6 million visits, over 400,000 registered borrowers and nearly 7 million materials loaned each year.
The number of registered users changed yesterday, when Mayor Nutter and schools Superintendent William Hite handed out 98,000 library cards to students in district schools. The goal is to make sure that every student has a library card. That's important, since the school budget cuts have led to a decimation of school libraries, with few school librarians left in the system. Hite and library president Siobhan Reardon are working to see how the Free Library can help fill the void.
If anyone should know about the importance of the library, it's Mayor Nutter. In 2008, facing a brutal budget season, Nutter proposed closing 11 library branches. Citizens (and the courts) were not amused. The branches were saved, though the system underwent massive cuts in funding and in hours. Even now, the library struggles with a reduced staff that requires emergency closings. Tracking emergency closing hours is a sad, new feature in the library's annual report; it shows that in 2013 the library system overall was shuttered for 5,451 hours due to emergency closures. Nutter's new budget would restore $2.5 million to the library's budget - not enough to stay on top of an expensive system with older buildings and rising costs for acquiring materials.