A welfare symbol dies a slow death

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A welfare symbol dies a slow death


Last Thursday, I was at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington. Established in 1972, the four-story building is the largest central library among the 25 public libraries operated by the capital.

A young African-American man in shabby clothing waited in line for 20 minutes to use a computer in the center of the lobby. Finally, it was his turn, and as he proceeded to dance to a music video on the computer, he seemed not to care how other people looked at him. A middle-aged woman passed by him, with a paper listing classified ads, and entered the reading room.

I went to the library because the city had announced that, starting in October, the library would be closed on Sundays because of financial restraints. This is the library’s first closure since its opening. For some time, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library has been the only public library that remained open on Sundays. The other 24 libraries in the district have been closed on Sundays for a while.

As soon as I entered the library, I saw the sign announcing that the library would be closed on Sundays beginning this month. Every visitor stopped and read that sign. An elderly man named Scott, who was at the information desk, said that the library had never closed in the 30 years he had been working there, except for renovation and reconstruction projects. He said it is most heartbreaking when visitors ask him if the library can remain open for at least couple hours on Sundays.

He also said that, on Sundays, people from a nearby shelter would come to the library to watch football games on a TV in the basement and parents who work late on weekdays would come to the library with their children. Where will these people go now?

Fortunately, two days before the first Sunday closure, the D.C. authorities announced that the library had secured an additional $300,000 and would remain open on Sundays until next year. While many people were relieved, they also seemed to realize how pathetic the makeshift response makes the U.S. capital look.

The public libraries located in small towns across the United States used to be symbols of an advanced welfare system. But those symbols are collapsing. The nation may not be bankrupt, but its social welfare system is on the verge of bankruptcy. Nothing illustrates that the economy and welfare are not separate better than the struggles of the public libraries.

*The writer is the Washington correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Jung-wook
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