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    Bush winces at price tag on state history

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 8, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE -- There's a map from 1589, illustrating Sir Francis Drake's attack on St. Augustine, its colors still bright as summer. There are papers telling how in the early 1970s Disney transformed the groves of Central Florida into the concrete Kingdom of the Mouse. There's a telegram from civil rights leader Rev. C.K. Steele to Gov. LeRoy Collins, asking him to stop the persecution of black citizens during the Tallahassee bus boycott in 1956. There's the diary of Gen. Thomas Jesup, who captured Chief Osceola in the Seminole Wars of the 1830s.

    It took 150 years to build the collection in the State Library. Jeb Bush, the self-styled "Education Governor," may destroy it in a few weeks.

    Housing and maintaining the library costs around $5-million a year. According to Bush, Florida just can't afford it. If the governor gets his way, the library will close. The library's archivists and curators will be fired. The 1-million books and documents that tell the story of Florida from the arrival of Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513 to the disputed presidential election of 2000, will be packed up and sent away.

    Ken Detzner, interim secretary of state until Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood takes over later this month, is tripping all over himself trying to defend this proposed act of cultural vandalism. He allows as how there's "value" in having the library, "but in tough economic times, is that part of the state's core mission?"

    In recent letters to Florida newspapers (many of which have editorialized against shutting the library), Detzner defends the governor. Bush wants to spend $19-million on his Just Read, Florida! program. Bush even proclaimed February 2003 "Library Appreciation Month." Detzner blames the passage of Amendment 9 for the state's poverty (those pesky voters). Then he claims that moving or dividing the collection would actually be better for the citizens: they could get materials via interlibrary loan. He doesn't explain how this would work: If somebody wanted to look at the 1589 Baptista Boazio map, would it get shoved into an envelope with a stamp stuck on it?

    The attack on the library would be absurd if it weren't so crass. At first, Bush apparatchiks said the library would be transferred to Florida State University. Not that there would be any extra money, or staff, or a building. It sounded like they just figured to grab a bunch of boxes at the liquor store, gather up the books and papers, throw them in the back of the SUV and leave them on the steps of Robert Manning Strozier Library for FSU to care for.

    FSU's new president, T.K. Wetherell, may be a certified Friend of Jeb, but his institution is due to be cut by $18-million this year, and he's not about to take on this fragile collection without the space, the cash and the professional archivists to go with it. You don't just park this stuff on a shelf somewhere. It requires temperature-controlled rooms, special lighting and conservators expert in handling old paper and delicate bindings.

    Now no one seems to know what will become of the state's collection. Ken Detzner has said there are other possibilities. Evidently Nova Southeastern University in Broward County might take the library. Nova hasn't got much of an academic reputation, but it is private -- and the governor loves privatization.

    Yes, Florida is dirt poor this year, suffering partly from the tubercular national economy (presided over by the governor's brother), and partly because of tax breaks amounting to at least $1.6-billion, mostly benefiting corporations and the rich. Jeb Bush and the Legislature have bled the state white over the past four years and things aren't improving: Bush's budget for this year includes a further $200-million in tax breaks largely for the already-affluent. The state library is the repository of Florida's cultural wealth, open to everyone. Yet Florida can't scrape up $5-million to keep it open?

    Five-million bucks is chump change in a budget of $54-billion. You could probably find $10,000 just rooting around in House Speaker Johnnie Byrd's sofa cushions. Somehow the state can afford to let him have $500,000 to pay an army of public relations operatives. Somehow the state can afford $1.6-million to gussy up a capitol lounge used by lawmakers' families, buy Senate President Jim King a new carpet and build a private legislative bathroom (apparently public servants can't use public facilities).

    Somehow the state can afford to give Jeb Bush's former campaign spokesman Todd Harris a $50,000 sweetheart contract to help the Department of Education craft a communications strategy "consistent with the governor's vision." Somehow we can afford the tens of thousands in legal fees the state will have to pay when the governor and the Legislature go to court to defend the unconstitutional laws they are so fond of passing. Somehow we can still afford to exempt sky boxes and tanning beds from sales tax.

    When Florida officially joined the union in 1845, one of the first acts of the new Legislature was to create an institution for the artifacts of our past. Maybe those old-school Democrats and Whigs (there were no Republicans in those days) understood that Florida would always be a state of immigrants, deracinated people who would need reminding that even though Florida emphasizes the new, the place has a long, long history. The library is the memory of Florida. The library is the treasure house of our heritage. If we lose it, we will never get it back -- not at any price.

    Diane Roberts, a former Times editorial writer, is a professor of English at the University of Alabama.

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