THERE'S a fundamental misunderstanding about the outcry over the planned shutdown of 11 library branches in the city.

The wail of despair isn't just about losing access to books, the Internet or kids' reading programs. If it were, then the logical response would be workable, though clunky.

Send bookmobiles to the neighborhoods. Coax people into buying cheap home computers and signing up for no-frills Internet plans. Beef up literacy and after-school classes in the city's schools.

But these mechanical responses don't get at the truth of what Philadelphia's library branches truly are:

The healthy heart of a community - the bricks-and-mortar embodiment of its best, most hopeful and egalitarian self.

Close a library and you still a neighborhood's beating heart.

Each city library branch is its own quirky place. It is more than the sum of the periodicals, computers and other materials ensconced within its walls.

These aren't chain stores, where one Target is indistinguishable from another.

They're as different from each other as Kingsessing is from Holmesburg, or Holmesburg is from Fishtown – all communities about to lose their libraries.

Tell it, Susan Feenan.

"Neighborhoods in this city are funny, their identities hard to define," says Feenan, a Kensington native who moved with her husband, after college, to Fishtown, where they're raising three daughters.

"Where is their center, their heart? For some it's a viable commercial corridor; we're still working on that. For others it's a church or a park - we've got a few of those, too.

"But our little library comprises much of the heart of this neighborhood. It's always hopping. The cross-section of humanity represented there on any given day is a true glimpse of the American melting pot at its very best."

The Fishtown branch of the Free Library is small, crowded and often noisy, Feenan concedes - much like the city itself.

It's also a place where an increasingly diverse community bumps shoulders in an easy way that transcends race, age, class, education and other demographics that keep people apart.

"We have to be patient and tolerant of others in close proximity in order for it to work," Feenan says. "At times, our library seems like the last place on earth that would yield a quiet, contemplative, literary experience.

"Yet this little gem has everything we could ever want. I could stand in front of any given shelf and find 10 things I'd like to borrow. Moreover, it is what the library of today has become: our community center. It is uniquely ours."

That's why Feenan scoffs at the library administration's directive that she and her kids simply mosey to the next nearest branch.

"Unfortunately, that branch is located in a place I wouldn't want to walk my children to, let alone let them walk themselves," she says. "It's an extremely unfortunate facet of the nature of this city, how the vibe can change quickly from one block to the next. This is not snobbery; it's reality."

Feenan and other Fishtowners are incensed at how hard their community is being hit by the budget cuts. In addition to their library, their neighborhood pool and some fire services are being eliminated.

"It seems our government thinks our neighborhood is perfect for a casino but not worthy of the basic urban amenities that make it livable for regular folk," Feenan says, referring to SugarHouse, whose planned gaming extravaganza is already pitting pro- and anti-casino neighbors against each other.

"How can we be expected to swallow a pill the size of a casino while they take away basic amenities that make this neighborhood liveable?"

Liveability, really, is at the heart of the despair over the budget cuts. What will the cuts do to a city that needs more people to live here by choice, not because they have no other options?

I'm talking about working, civic-minded residents who strengthen their communities by knitting themselves into its very fabric by forging connections at their libraries, pools, rec centers.

These people can be found not just in Fishtown but in Holmesburg, Kingsessing and all the neighborhoods whose treasured libraries are slated for closure.

Shuttering the libraries makes fools of those who have chosen urban life for the particular brand of civic engagement it allows them.

And it weakens struggling communities whose residents have no choice about where they live - but who still deserve access to the egalitarian dignity a library affords all who enter.

Back in 1972, the American scholar Archibald MacLeish said, "What is more important in a library than anything else - than everything else - is the fact that it exists."

Over three decades later, his words ring with a desperate truth.

For a list of rallies and marches this weekend in protest of the library closings, go to www.libraryfriends.info/. *

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns: