America’s first lending library was started by Benjamin Franklin in 1731. And the statesman’s revolutionary advocacy of sharing information resources continues to inform the spirit of the approximately 260 public libraries in Maine.

But too many of Maine’s libraries are battling to stay alive, funding their operations with private donations, volunteer hours and the proceeds of fundraising book and pie sales. Public libraries account for a tiny share of government spending in proportion to the value of the services they offer, and the small amount of money that local and state officials save by reducing library funding doesn’t justify depriving residents of the critical resources and services that libraries provide.

Reports that libraries have succumbed to neglect in the Internet age are greatly exaggerated. More than half of all Americans have visited a library in the past year, noted a recent Pew Research Center study, and a third are avid readers and news consumers who “appreciate what libraries do for their communities, and value a range of library services from book lending to children’s programs.”

Although those surveyed haven’t left books behind — most told Pew that book lending is a “very important” library service — the availability of free computers and Internet access is just as vital. That’s no surprise. Computers are increasingly necessary for kids to do homework, for parents to communicate with teachers and for the jobless to complete applications for employment.

Public libraries are the only source of free Internet access in 77 percent of Maine communities, making local libraries more necessary than ever. But at the same time, the need to contain residents’ property tax burden by reining in municipal spending has been amplified by massive revenue-sharing cuts that have forced towns to scrimp where they can.

The librarian in the western Maine community of Mexico, for example, told the Maine Sunday Telegram that her budget battle is becoming tougher each year, although the most recent annual library appropriation totaled $68,000, accounting for less than 3 percent of municipal spending. And the library in the village of North Bridgton, whose residents pay just $1.70 in tax money per capita on libraries, will close Dec. 31 because the board can’t afford to keep it open.

Library funding is no more generous at the state level than at the local level. Maine is one of a handful of states that provides no direct aid to libraries, and in recent years it has reduced funding for indirect library aid, in the form of statewide programs like interlibrary loan and electronic databases.

Maine’s public libraries are in an unworkable situation. If government officials don’t step up and increase support, more of these institutions will shut down — and take critical community resources with them.

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