We don’t know if Robeson County’s high rate of illiteracy is because our county’s public library system is so poorly funded locally, or if the system is so poorly funded as a result of this county’s high rate of illiteracy.
But we are confident proclaiming that any county’s library system and its illiteracy rate are tightly tethered. The implicit message is that literacy doesn’t matter, when in fact, an ability to read, write and comprehend opens all the important doors that otherwise remain padlocked.
There is a wide range of definitions for literacy, but we prefer functional. People who struggle to read an e-mail, a street sign or a menu simply aren’t going to be able to thrive in society, and inevitably will be shoved aside to depend on the rest of us. Our high illiteracy rate has sentenced us to the wrong end of so many quality-of-life lists, including crime, education and welfare. Reading and writing is a first step down life’s journey that simply cannot be skipped.
We found it embarrassing to learn that our county ranks dead last in the state in funding its library system. And it’s not even close. The counties that surround us, Bladen, Columbus and Scotland, are also poor, but they find dollars for their library system at four to 10 times what Robeson provides.
We know that ours is a poor county, and tax dollars are precious, but we struggle to find a better return on investment than supporting a library system that can lift people from poverty. We believe there should be a higher obligation to do so in a county as impoverished as ours — and with our dark history of denying education to people of color.
The free range of services provided by a vibrant library system is vast. About 900 people use one of the county’s seven libraries each day they are open during the year. But that number would grow if our county’s library branches were not short on staff, operating on limited hours, and struggling to keep the shelves fully flushed with fresh resources.
Often these people are driven to the library because what they need — a book, a how-to guide on crafting a resume, or the Internet — can’t be found at home. The library, additionally, is a wonderful babysitter in a county where too many children have a single parent, and often that parent must be at work or school.
We all know the elephant in this room.
The commissioners have found the taxpayer dollars to meet other needs, many of them selfish, and that makes starving the library particularly egregious. We expect that in the weeks and months to come that taxpayer dollars that have been misdirected will be redirected toward the library, and when that happens, tens of thousands of Robesonians are in line to benefit — not just eight.