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As the Library Turns

by Lila Allen

April 9,2010

There's a diner that I frequent, way down on Central, where the cakes are ten inches tall, the waitress remembers my order every time (grilled cheese with ranch dressing), and the smoking ban makes everything feel just a little off. And the televisions! 90's-style, 11" square, perched in the corners, and always on "the stories": One Life to Live, As the World Turns, The Young and the Restless, Passions!

Soaps: love them or hate them, they keep going and going. Or rather, they have until recently. In 2007, Passions faced the daytime television chopping block; in 2009, As the World Turns (the incestuous arsonist kidnapper grandpa of soap opera – or is he?!) met a similar fate, along with its competitor Guiding Light. And the future of One Life to Live hangs precariously in the balance.

As the World Turns has aired since 1956, making it only two years shy of meeting The Tonight Show in its spot for the longest-running regularly-scheduled entertainment program in the United States. And no doubt, there are longtime fans who dread its final airdate of September 17, 2010. Fifty four years of hysterics and melodrama, and all I got was this lousy rerun. A story is a terrible thing to lose.

In the past few weeks, Charlotte has felt its own loss of stories. The recent announcement of drastic cuts in staffing, hours, and resource availability of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library has left many residents sorting through all of those tricky emotions of mourning: anger, denial, depression – all, for now, but acceptance. And we have fought the good fight since learning the news, with over $266,000 raised as I write this article; sadly, it's just a drop in the deep well of two million plus that we have left to fill this fiscal year alone.

Under the revised plan, branches will shut doors two hours early on days of operation and will remain closed at least one extra day per week. The Charlotte Mecklenburg Library also plans to limit services such as storytelling, classes for the unemployed, teenagers, and adults, and will trim between 82 and 84 jobs. Library employees can expect a cut in their paycheck ranging anywhere from five to 20 percent. But perhaps the scariest part of the scenario is the uncertainty for next year: early estimates suggest that the 2011 fiscal year may bring up to a 50 percent budget reduction.

It will likely be years before the Charlotte community can really gauge the impact of these reductions, which will affect approximately 17,000 residents daily. In the end, it isn't simply a loss of stories or a loss of books – though naturally, access to literature will be one of the greatest casualties of these cuts – it's also a loss of a safe neighborhood space to better oneself, and in turn, better a community through education, job training, and computer literacy. While the library system should be commended for its efforts to pull resources together and salvage what was almost a system literally broken in half, I still feel a tremendous sadness for the sacrifices that have had to be made.

But therein lies the irony: I am not a regular library user. And the truth is, people like me, who have the means for their own laptops and wi-fi, are at the heart of the library's dilemma: in the age of the Internet, many would-be library users instead rally around a private virtual information space. I've heard my own situation regularly echoed on blogs and Facebook feeds, only to be followed by outcry of loss – we still really like the idea of the library, regardless of whether or not we use its services. The result is a system yielded unsustainable. My promotion of the brick-and-mortar library on a virtual platform is nothing next to the man who checks out three books per week.

Like a good soap, the ongoing saga of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library has us in suspense, hanging onto the cliff of what we know and where we've been. We grip for our lives, terrified that dropping to the next plateau will break our legs. We stick around week after week because we know that if we invest enough attention, enough positive thinking, that events will play out for the best. There will be red herrings, missed connections, and disappointments along the way – of course there will. This drama is not one with a clear-cut beginning or finale; it is just one episode, to be followed by many others.