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Robin Dunn, a Tullahoma High School math teacher, mother of two and library patron, is mad. And she’s doing something about it.
Last Tuesday, Dunn attended the Coffee County Commission meeting, where commissioners were considering ways the county budget could pay for state-mandated county schools and law enforcement – including a new school, jail and, possibly, increased salaries for jail employees. To find the needed money, commissioners have looked for line items that could be cut, focusing, according to Dunn, on the two Coffee County libraries – one each in Manchester and Tullahoma.
“It bothered me. It bothered me a lot that it would even be considered a luxury. I know it’s not mandated but I don’t think that education for everyone should be a luxury. I know that there’s stuff available to you when you go through our school system when you’re five to 18, but I would surely hope people younger than five and older than 18 want to read and not everybody has access to books. Not everybody is going to be able to buy them from Amazon,” said Dunn.
“The library is not serving children three to four years old and ousting the rest of the population,” said Dunn. “It is serving everybody. It is completely non-exclusive. I don’t care if you can afford to go to Amazon and order your own books, you don’t have to.”
“I feel like these people who are making these decisions are the type of people who buy bottled water when it’s free out of the tap. This is a beautiful service that’s fantastic and they aren’t using it. There is no way they can make these decisions and have gone to this library.”
So Dunn logged on to the world’s largest online petition program, Change.org, and asked locals to “Save Our Public Libraries.” In little more than a day, more than 500 people had made what they wanted clear.
“When you are a person in power and you aren’t utilizing a service, sometimes you suppose that no one else is either,” said Dunn, “And that doesn’t make them bad people, but they are definitely ill-informed because this place is booming all the time. There are people here using the services. And they are people that are forgotten about a lot. And it makes me angry when I see this particular class – the working poor – left out.
“I feel like there are a lot of people saying, ‘if you’re unemployed, find a job; pull yourself up from the bootstraps.’ But there’s no way to just start from scratch. We’re destroying every opportunity that people have to find themselves a job and to get out of the working poor class. There’s no way to get out if you don’t have access to knowledge. Self-education is everything. You can’t expect people to be able to better themselves if there’s nothing to go by.”
Dunn says that starting the petition was “a very small act” on her part.
“Over 500 people in less than 30 hours have shown that they fully agree. And they also did a small act: they signed a piece of paper. Here we’ve got dozens and dozens and dozens of people doing small acts and it’s showing huge change. This is huge momentum. This is how things should be. There’s not just one person championing this thing, the entire community is saying “no.”
Signatures are still being collected at http://www.change.org/petitions/mark-c-kelly-save-coffee-county-s-public-libraries
As of Monday morning, 1,442 people have signed the petition.
According to technical services librarian Kass VonWert, this petition shows how many patrons who come to the library actually feel about the facility.
“It’s a hard situation,” said VonWert. “We really do feel for the county; but you can’t have some of the services and not have to pay for it. We have cut back. We have been holding on as long as we possibly can. We have struggled and struggled. We’ve got to reinvent the wheel at times.
“We get fewer books and fewer movies each year because the prices have gone up and there’s no more money left. We’re getting down to where services would alter. There’s nothing left to cut.
“What I love about this place is that the people here genuinely care about every patron who walks through the door,” said Dunn. “I think that might be why they are getting stomped on. They give and give and give. They haven’t been demanding.
“These people here are not going to put up a fuss if they don’t get their budgeting,” said Dunn. “But if they don’t get their budgeting we’re all going to lose out. If they don’t get their maintenance of effort, they’ll be losing the READS program, which is access to online reading. We won’t have that anymore. We’ll lose a huge amount of books that are interlibrary loan from the regional program. This place will definitely lose a lot of luster and it’s going to be very difficult to keep people coming if there’s nothing for them to have. It’s a big concern for me, for my own kids; it’s a big concern for my neighbors.”
With the loss of the Regional e-Book and Audiobook Download System (READS), library patrons would also lose the ability to read any of the Lannom Library-owned digital books purchased for use on the READS OverDrive e-book platform.
“If that goes away, our OverDrive books are gone, too, because we won’t have the platform to run them. Patrons couldn’t download them. It doesn’t matter that we bought them, there’s no way to get to them,” said VonWert. “That’s money that we’ve thrown away if the platform goes away.”
The maintenance of effort to which Dunn refers is a state-recognized agreement from the county to continue funding the library at an established rate each year. This agreement is meant to prevent local (both city and county) governments from shirking their fiscal responsibility for their public libraries in favor of state or federal funding. If local funding is not maintained, the state can and will refuse to provide its services, such as tech support for library computer systems, training and workshops for library boards and staff, access to state-owned library materials and grant funding for special projects and workshops.
Though the city of Tullahoma also contributes to the library through its own maintenance of effort agreement, the primary source of library funding comes from the county, with roughly $450,000 coming from the county’s general fund annually to support the Tullahoma library. Roughly the same amount is also in the county budget to support another library in Manchester. Together, the two libraries account for nearly $1 million of the county budget, according to Coffee County Director of Accounts and Budgets Marianna Edinger.
Stripping down public libraries to save money is only a temporary fix, according to VonWert. “In other cities where they’ve cut the funding, a lot of them say that was probably the worst idea they had.
“School libraries aren’t open in the summer and college libraries aren’t accessible to adults who don’t take classes there.” If the public libraries close, VonWert said. “All adults will be out of the loop of anything.”
For kids and teens, Dunn said. “This library does a lot as far as programs. There are book clubs and the summer reading is helping with the summer slide, especially for these kids that live in this area who are coming and walking here. They lose so much if they aren’t reading.”
One of the programs that would certainly be dropped if funding is cut is an external summer reading program for children living in low-income housing.
“(Childrens’ librarian Sharon Edwards) is going to Dossett and the Housing Authority and doing summer reading out there because those kids are not going to be able to walk down here,” said Dunn.
“It took us a long time to get to the point where someone could leave the building. There’s only so much you can accomplish tied to the circulation desk,” said VonWert. “We see the success. We see it changing lives.”
“When you read a book, you escape,” said Edwards. “These kids, they don’t have food. If anybody needs an escape, it’s these children.”
“And there’s no monthly bill for them,” added VonWert. “It’s not a video game or TV. There’s no electricity needed.”
“That’s proactive,” says Dunn. “A jail is reactive. I’m not saying it’s not important, but we can’t just pick up the pieces after everything has blown up.”
“To have a huge jail and no libraries would be a horrible community to live in; that’s not where I want to be.”
Still, until the county commission passes a budget, the future for Coffee County libraries is uncertain.
“At this point, we’re not sure,” said VonWert. “There are a few commissioners that are not library supporters, a few that are, and others that don’t have a strong opinion, so we don’t know where they stand. It really all comes down to numbers.”
“There are still enough people there to change the tide. We’re keeping our fingers crossed and letting them see us.”
Dunn planned to present her petition to the commission during its regular meeting Tuesday, June 24 at the Coffee County Administrative Plaza on McArthur Street in Manchester.
Commission meetings are open to the public.