Public libraries are an important component of a free society. For those who cannot afford the cost of higher education, for example, they represent one of democracy's best outlets for becoming self-taught and improving one's lot in life.

But as this week's Orange County Grand Jury report confirmed, the county's library system is reeling, as others are, from budget cuts mandated by shifts in local property tax money to pay for California's public schools. The viability of the library system, according to the ominous words of the report, "is in the hands of the public."

The jury found that some of the county system's 27 branches are in danger of having to close next year because of the shortfalls. Library officials expect a budget next year that will be $9 million less than what was allocated two years ago. Last year, more than $6 million was cut from the library budget, necessitating substantial reductions in service hours and the elimination of 75 full-time positions.

All of this makes even more urgent the work of the 15-member library task force recently created by the Board of Supervisors to recommend new sources of revenue for the system. It seems inevitable that there will be some increased fees for such things as overdue books, and a new charge for placing personal book orders for publications not available in some local branches. The challenge will be to find those new sources of revenue that somehow still will preserve the spirit of public libraries and keep them accessible.

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