Woman in libraryFor public libraries, it could be the best of times, but it's increasingly looking like the worst of times. The good news is that they seem to be staging a major comeback, with usage numbers sharply rising across the country. On the other side of the ledger, however, library funding is being slashed, staffs are being cut, and doors are being closed.

In Detroit, the public library system recently announced it will lay off more than 80 employees -- 20% of the library's staff -- because of a growing financial crisis. Administrators will take 10% pay cuts, and the library is considering branch closures to cope with a dwindling budget.

In nearby Troy, the public library will close its doors on April 30. Historically an affluent suburban city, Troy has "faced the double whammy of the economic downturn in the Detroit area as well as a defeat by voters in February [2010] of a property tax millage."

New Patrons, New Responsibilities

Across the country, libraries large and small are experiencing a similar financial squeeze. But at the same time, patrons are becoming increasingly reliant on libraries as other government services have been cut. For people who need help with finding tax forms online, applying for benefits and accessing social services, libraries have helped mitigate the reduction in civil servants.

At the same time, unemployed workers can use library computers to submit job applications over the Internet, and entrepreneurs can use their resources to research opening their own businesses. Libraries continue to fulfill their more basic functions, making costly manuals and other resources available to mechanics and other professionals.

Then there's always the traditional library responsibility of providing educational resources. For the majority of children living in rural areas, New York Times bestselling thriller author and long-time library advocate Karin Slaughter says, "The library offers their only access to books and the Internet outside of the schoolroom. For many urban kids, the only safe haven they have to study or do homework is the public library. And, believe it or not, there are still children whose highlight of the week is that trip to the library. It was true when I was a kid, and it's doubly true now: The library is the beating heart of any community."

One Author's Solution

To help generate financial support for public libraries, Slaughter is spearheading a fund-raising initiative, Save The Libraries, whose pilot event will benefit the DeKalb (Georgia) County Public Library system. With support from the International Thriller Writers, an honorary society of fiction and nonfiction thriller authors, Slaughter will host a cocktail party and mystery theater performance on March 12. Authors Kathryn Stockett, writer of The Help, and Mary Kay Andrews, author of 10 critically acclaimed bestselling novels, will also be involved.

In addition to the ticketed event, an online auction on March 1-12 will expand the fund-raiser's reach beyond the Atlanta area. "Computers will be set up at the library," Slaughter explains, "and the bidding will take place in real time. This means that someone from Decatur, Ga., might be bidding against a writer in Bulgaria to have their script read by my film agent in Los Angeles."

Additional auction items include drinks and appetizers with Mary Kay Andrews for up to a dozen readers at Decatur's Feast restaurant; signed books by Lisa Scottoline, Joseph Wambaugh, Iris Johansen, Neil Gaiman, Michael Connelly and Christopher Moore; a trip to New York to lunch with Slaughter's literary agent; and a manuscript critique from Slaughter's U.K. editor. Administrative and marketing costs have been underwritten by sponsors, so funds raised will directly benefit the library.

Writing the Manual for Saving Libraries

"More important than just this one event," Slaughter says, "is the repeatability we've built into the Save The Libraries program. We are documenting every step -- and misstep -- so far in our journey to build a successful fund-raiser. Eventually, we will combine all of these components into an 'event in a box' packet that will act as a template for future fund-raisers." The ultimate goal is to enable libraries to hold similar events with a minimal amount of staff planning time and administrative investment. A second planned event to benefit the Boston Public Library system will help fine-tune the process.

Eventually, Save The Libraries hopes to hold a nationwide raffle in which the International Thriller Writers will invite library systems from all four corners of the continental U.S. to submit a proposal for a fund-raiser event. One system will then be chosen from each quadrant, and the International Thriller Writers will send, at no expense to the library, at least four New York Times bestselling authors to help the library system raise much-needed funds. Dennis Lehane, Linda Fairstein, Joseph Finder, Douglas Preston, Lisa Gardner and Tess Gerritsen have all agreed to participate.

"As a lasting legacy," Slaughter says, "there is nothing more important we can do than to make sure everyone has free and open access to reading. Whether it's celebrating banned-book week or risking jail time in support of reader privacy, librarians have always stood up for the rights of writers. It's time that we stood up for them."

As for the March 12 DeKalb Library fund-raiser, Slaughter summarizes: "I'm hoping we have a nice, round figure at the end of this that will entice other libraries to get excited about the International Thriller Writers doing something with their library system."

Because when it comes to raising funds for libraries, it really is all about the money.

Karen Dionne is the internationally published author the environmental thrillers Freezing Point and Boiling Point. Karen is also the cofounder of Backspace, and serves on the board of directors of the International Thriller Writers. Visit Red Room to find out more about her books and to read her blog.

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