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Bookleggers' Founder Nathaniel Sandler on Miami's Library Closings: "I Think It's Shameful"

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Earlier this month, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez reversed his stance on raising property taxes. Now he wants to close almost half of our public libraries. Many of those libraries are in low-income neighborhoods, and their closure will affect poor adults who rely on the library system for online access, as well as children, who depend on library programming and books.

Nathaniel Sandler is a founding member of Bookleggers, a successful mobile library celebrating its one-year anniversary this Sunday at the Broken Shaker. He also freelances for the University of Miami Special Collections library and writes for WLRN, for which he recently penned a scathing critique of the mayor's plans. And August 13, Sandler will lecture at Locust Projects about the future of libraries, which he believes are not as disposable as the mayor apparently thinks.

We caught up with the bibliophile to talk about the ongoing library debate.

New Times: How do you feel about the mayor trying to close almost half of our libraries?

Nathaniel Sandler: I think it's shameful. Budget cuts are budget cuts, but the reality is that his message is an affront to our shared heritage and, more important, the underserved communities in Miami. If you're truly broke and need to make your life better, you probably don't have a computer and the cash for a monthly bill to a huge internet providing company. Not everyone can afford a $60 monthly Comcast bill for the internet. So you go to a library. Libraries logged a million hours of internet use in Miami-Dade. Those are people who don't have computers or online access at home -- is Gimenez's mindset just "screw them"? I guess so. It seems inhumane for the power brokers to put everything online and then systematically begin taking away free access to information.

You're right. Nationwide, 30 percent of households don't have internet access at home, and the rates are higher for minorities. According to the U.S. Census, almost half of Hispanic and black households don't have internet access at home. We're supposed to be this burgeoning "international" city. We should be opening libraries, not closing them. And you can't say "go to an internet café," because they also cost money, and there's currently a ban on them.

Most people don't understand that libraries aren't just books. There's free internet access, original and irreplaceable archival material, and places where kids and families and schoolteachers build community. Every book in the library isn't on the internet. They're just not.

Can libraries adapt to the digital age?

Libraries are adapting, and the public needs to give them time to do so. I am not a reactionary. I make my entire living off the internet and spend most of my day here. But getting rid of libraries is not the solution. Instead, we need to foster them as both digital and print safe houses.

Imagine you were in the mayor's shoes. How do you find a compromise? Do you think the mayor even wants a compromise? Is it possible to give our elected officials the benefit of the doubt?

In his shoes? I've never seen his feet, but I bet they're clown shoes.

The mayor and city commissioners have until October to figure this thing out. As of now, no libraries are closed. There will be seven town hall public hearings, the first of which is next week, August 6, ironically held at a library. What can people do to let the mayor know this is a horrible idea?

I think the book community and people who see this as important need to stick together. Sign the Change.org petition, sure, but show up to events whenever possible. The Save the Miami Dade Public Libraries Facebook Page has an active community trying to figure out what to do. Part of the puzzle now is that a lot of the people who are passionate about this don't have a straightforward game plan because it's a totally different professional realm. There is much whispering about how it just may be too late this year, and the more important discussion is the 2014 budget. It's my belief that Gimenez is no friend of libraries and he wants them all gone.

The solution feels simple: Find the money. Look at what the Dolphins just went through, trying to get a roof for the stadium. They spent millions of dollars coming up with a plan to raise funds. Can't we use that blueprint to fund libraries? What alternatives do the mayor and commissioners have?

They had their chance to do something, huffed and puffed, and then voted to not raise the tax an average of $25 per household per year -- saving pennies at the expense of our heritage. I am working with people on trying to understand the budgeting process to see if we can find places where money could come from, but as I said, we need help. We need to make our voices heard.

To make your voice heard, you can call the mayor's office at 305-375-5071 or email him at mayor@miamidade.gov. If you want to network with some other activists, blow off some steam, and celebrate this Sunday at the one-year anniversary of Bookleggers, it will be a welcome respite from all the bad news. The party at Broken Shaker begins at 3 p.m., with an 8 o'clock screening of The Ninth Gate. Visit the event's Facebook page.

Follow Cultist on Facebook and Twitter @CultistMiami.

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