In winter of early 2010, a group of citizens convened in south Evanston for a day to workshop a vision of what libraries could be going forward. While the usual benefits were quickly identified – educational supplement, literacy, jobs resource, digital divide bridge, economic development driver – the surprising element distilled from the discussion was that of a neighborhood library’s centrality to democracy itself.

Whether analogizing to the ancient Greek agora or seeing libraries as greenhouses for freedom, with information as the seedstock, the consensus was that libraries are far more than storehouses of books. They also serve as community place where citizens and ideas meet, mingle, and inspire. This theme, somewhat lost in the long-running drama over funding, needs to return front and center as the Library Board considers budget for 2012 and beyond. A budget of restoration and promise will best harness the democratic horsepower that libraries can generate.

Two years ago, the City Council cut the Library budget by almost 16%. The most recent Library budget, annualized, was still less than 89% of the Library’s 2009-10 funding. Annualized City of Evanston General Fund spending, by contrast, minus library share, is at 99.4% of its 2009-10 level, virtually flat.

The disproportionate budget slash to libraries wasn’t demanded by Evanston’s citizenry. No anti-library referendum was ever put to the ballot; it would fail miserably. Nor, in recent elections, did any majority of aldermen, or any mayoral candidate, campaign on a public pledge to cut the Library budget. At its peak, just barely $5 million, that modest budget passed without protest. There was and is no mandate for drastic reduction. Both in process and in product, Library cuts have been a wound to local democracy.

Now that the Library Board has the conceded legal right to restore what was cut, should it do so, or preserve the current pinched and puny levels? Does a prisoner, freed from his cell, continue to wear prison blues? Does an Outer Banks resident, once a hurricane has passed, keep her house boarded up and shuttered? Restoration would respect democracy because the overwhelming majority of speakers, writers, and respondents to public surveys have voiced support for library services and neighborhood branches. Citizen comment supporting libraries runs to many hours despite the tiny time limits imposed at public meetings. The same occurred for decades every time the institutions were targeted. Only a vocal few have spoken out for cutting hours, collections, or branches, often hiding behind anonymity or launching ad hominems from the blog swamps. Respect for democratic process, alone, mandates a return of revenue and service to respectable levels.

Tax objections to restoration ring hollow, because the Library and its neighborhood branches have never been the source of property tax distress in Evanston, and wouldn’t be even if three neighborhood branches were open every day. Currently, the North Branch serves 70,000 visitors annually for a bargain, the equivalent of what we pay two average District 65 administrators. By comparison, in the decade just ended, District 65 annual spending increased by over $42 million, a 57.4% hike. From 2005-06 to 2008-09, with little debate, the increase in that district’s property tax take, almost $4.8 million, equaled the Library’s entire 2008-09 budget.

So why has the Library been the annual subject of budget brouhaha? Why does that conversation even continue when, unlike cash-strapped agencies from federal to local, the Library is neither broke, nor anywhere near its revenue cap? One hopes the point isn’t simply to show citizen activists who’s boss. That wouldn’t be very nice, or very democratic.

Libraries, in a recession, in an information age, are a demonstrated, powerful public investment. Branch libraries not only support neighborhood businesses, but help anchor a system that benefits all. A comprehensive community library network supports property values citywide, reduces burden on schools, combats root causes of crime, and supports families for whom books, publications, and broadband Internet are tough purchases. But the greatest return on these public, common spaces may be on our investment in the American dream and ideals.

Faith in government is at a low. Voters across the political spectrum doubt the value they get for their tax dollars, or that government even cares. An exception is libraries. Residents everywhere fight for them. Studies from Seattle to Charleston, from Colorado to Norway, reveal that citizens value local libraries not only for their uses, but as emblematic embodiments of democracy. Stacks of free speech, as a visible, critical part of the commons, combat cynicism by binding a community.

As with the economy, the pathway to civic recovery may not be through grand programs, but by building locally on what we already have. A neighborhood library, like freedom itself, belongs to all the public. We need more, not fewer, such reminders of the good that democracy can do.