A recently released report by the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board, "Help Wanted: Knowledge Workers Needed," included a stunning statistic: Almost 50 percent of the citizens of Philadelphia lack the basic skills needed to perform in a knowledge-based economy. Given that, our state and city leaders have shown a remarkable lack of vision in threatening to reduce library services.

We need to enlarge our workforce by teaching workers the skills that will enable them and the city to make the transition to the new economy. And the infrastructure to do so already exists in our libraries.

Recent data show that Americans are flocking to local libraries, often waiting in long lines for help and computer time. They are searching for employment, job-training information, and, if they are able, rewriting their resumes. Librarians are the new career counselors, sometimes taking the brunt of patrons' frustrations and fears in these turbulent times.

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People have spoken

As the local and national economies reinvent themselves, so does the public library. Long gone are the days when libraries were simply places for borrowing leisure reading materials or entertaining the kids for a few hours. They have become centers of access to knowledge, information, connectivity, culture, community, and jobs.

As demonstrated by the recent public outcry that helped save the city's 54-branch library system from 11 branch closings, citizens understand that their local libraries can change their lives, but only if they remain open and equipped. At town meetings, rallies, and budget summits throughout the city, Philadelphians spoke: Now is the time for investing in libraries, they said, not downsizing them.

The threat to libraries at the state level is less well-known. But Pennsylvania's state aid to libraries, which augments municipal budgets for libraries large and small, is in jeopardy. State Senate Republicans want to cut it by 50 percent; Gov. Rendell, by 10 percent.

The Free Library of Philadelphia could lose $3 million to $6 million in annual funding as a result, in addition to the $8 million it lost last year. This could mean more staff layoffs, branch hour reductions, and fewer book purchases and services.

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Further cuts

That's not the end of it. The Keystone Fund, the only reliable source of seed money for library capital and renovation projects, could disappear altogether - even though every dollar of it is matched by at least $6 in local funds. So far, 237 projects in 48 counties have used $100 million for library capital improvements.

Also on the chopping block are the essential statewide searchable databases used by the libraries and their patrons.

Imagine if our leaders gave us what we know we need most. While the unemployed and underemployed wait out the economic downturn, municipalities should be embarking on retraining and literacy projects, preparing suitable workers for future employment. We must fund libraries to help Pennsylvania's cities and towns recover, and to turn dashed hopes into dreams and anxiety into action.