Monday, July 28, 2014
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Library merger will lead to book burning

The book-burning is about to begin.

Library merger will lead to book burning

A patron walks with her guide dog through Philadelphia´s Library for the Blind. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
A patron walks with her guide dog through Philadelphia's Library for the Blind. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)

The book-burning is about to begin.

About 500,000 books on tape, used by the 13,000 patrons of the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Philadelphia, are on their way to York to be recycled.

That means George Orwell’s 1984 may become a soda bottle, or part of a park bench. But it will no longer be a book that can give readers the joy of enlightenment.

This senseless waste comes as Gov. Corbett pushes ahead with a plan to merge the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh libraries for the blind, a move which defies even the most twisted logic.

Neither library should be closed, but if one must be downsized, Corbett has made the counterintuitive choice. He will sap resources from the Philadelphia library, which serves 60 percent of the state’s users, rather than the smaller library in Pittsburgh.

Patrons in the western part of the state will have to compete for attention with those in the east, creating a service backlog for everyone.

Fortunately, the Philadelphia library will still offer braille and large-print materials, but its digital books and tapes are headed for the shredder.

The books on tape are essential to blind and disabled readers because many more book titles are available on cassette than in digital form. The tapes are so popular with patrons from the 29 eastern counties that 263,000 were circulated last year.

But as impressive as the collection is, Pittsburgh doesn’t have room for it, so the tapes will be destroyed.

The promise of the library merger was that patrons from eastern Pennsylvania would be served by Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library. But for four days, patrons have been unable to get through to the Pittsburgh facility to order books. The library has already begun deleting patron records, so there is no accounting of the tapes and digital books out on loan, according to Keri Wilkins, administrator of the Philadelphia library.

The Corbett administration cannot even say that this merger saves money, because the Philadelphia per-patron cost is lower than Pittsburgh’s. The governor has shown no signs that he has listened to a year of arguments to save the Philadelphia Library for the Blind. Even the chairman of the Free Library of Philadelphia has been stonewalled.

“All we’re asking is for the state to halt the merger and have a reassessment of the plan,” Robert Heim told Inquirer columnist Karen Heller.  Heim’s request is rational and reasonable. He’s not even asking to have the plan reversed. He just wants it thought through. There’s no harm in that. In the meantime, the tapes could be saved.

Corbett’s rigidity on the subject is an example of an administration willing to continue on an errant course simply because the governor has committed himself to it. But the mark of a strong leader is the ability to correct himself when required. Corbett needs to show he can do that.

If Corbett remains incapable of a course correction, the best hope for those trying to save the Philadelphia Library for the Blind may be U.S. Rep. Bob Brady. As the ranking Democrat on the Committee on House Administration, maybe he can persuade the Library of Congress to stop the book-burning. But he’ll need his fellow representatives’ help to prevent this Orwellian destruction of books.

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