Losing Libraries

Losing Libraries

How are public libraries weathering the economy? We show you the situation in communities across the country.

June 30, 2011, residents of Northvale, NJ, held a vigil outside their library, placing a funeral wreath on its steps. That night, the library closed for good. A tax referendum that would’ve raised the $250,000 the library needed to stay open had failed amid disputes between library trustees and city council. As the trustees began planning an independent library, the city’s mayor demanded the library’s collection, plus rent and utility payments. The library finally closed, but the city is contracting with an e-book lender and planning a computer lab for the old building.

Similar fates may await more US libraries as state and local budget cuts, low property tax revenues and higher operating costs impact libraries’ bottom lines. At budget time, officials may deem libraries nonessential or easily replaced by online resources. Our report shows how libraries in a half-dozen areas around the country are coping.

California: State funding for libraries was eliminated for 2012, after being cut in half last July. That effectively will eliminate the Public Library Fund, California Library Literacy and English Acquisition Service, and the California Library Services Act, which supports resource sharing amid the state’s eight cooperative library systems. Impacted programs include interlibrary loan and literacy services, as well as staffing and hours. For example, the rural Plumas County system is instituting furlough days, cutting hours and cancelling some programs.


Chicago: Last October, the city council approved a budget with more than $8 million in cuts to libraries. That was an upward revision from the original budget, which earmarked half the city’s impending layoffs for the library system even though it accounts for 3 percent of overall spending, prompting petitions and sit-ins from library supporters. Another concession: Libraries were to close Mondays, but now will remain open Monday and Friday mornings when school is out.

Denver: The Denver Public Library, well-known for its Western History and Genealogy Department, is funded by the city of Denver’s general fund. Budget cuts have already led to fewer hours (to 824 hours per week systemwide in 2011, down from 1,115 hours in 2003) and staff (423 in 2011 vs. 480 in 2003). More reductions were averted in 2012, but the library is operating below its library commission’s service standards. The commission is campaigning to form an independent library district funded by property taxes, instead of continuing as a city agency.
Las Vegas: Over the past four years, the Henderson Library System has cut operating hours (including closing altogether on Sundays) and reduced programming by nearly a quarter as its budget dropped from a high of $10 million to $7 million in 2011. Continued property tax revenue losses will likely mean additional cuts this year.

Michigan: The state legislature is considering a bill to eliminate the personal property tax on businesses. This would result in an estimated $1.2 billion in cuts to libraries, schools, police departments and other local institutions. The legislation contains no plans for replacing the revenue. A coalition of organizations is running a “Replace, Don’t Erase” campaign.

 
Lancaster County, Pa.: Library revenues here are on a slow and steady decline, while staffing costs—particularly for health care—increase. State funding has dropped from almost $3 million in 2008 to $1.9 million in 2011. State reimbursements also have disappeared for lending materials to borrowers outside library service areas. The library system has reduced office space by half and cut staff and hours, and is looking at new funding formulas that would make the system less reliant on state money.
 

For more on how US libraries are faring, see the American Library Association’s report on the State of American Libraries. To learn how you can help preserve libraries in your community, visit the ALA’s Save Libraries in Your State web page.

 

Going Digital

Are digital libraries the answer to budget shortfalls affecting the bricks-and-mortar variety? The United States actually has plenty of digital libraries, but collections tend to be small and under most people’s radar—an exception being the large, commercial Google Books.
 
Since December 2010, an ambitious initiative has been building a nonprofit Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) to “make the cultural and scientific heritage of humanity available, free of charge, to all.” It’ll offer books, pamphlets, periodicals, manuscripts, digital texts, and visual and audiovisual materials, starting with works in the public domain that have already been digitized and made accessible.

 
“Once you start aggregating all of this, you’ve got something on a scale that’s really greater than Google’s, something that surpasses anybody’s hopes,” says Robert Darnton, the Harvard University Library director whose idea sparked the project. Based at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and with Alfred P. Sloan Foundation backing, the initiative boasts a steering committee of leaders from the Internet Archive, Public.Resource.Org, the Hathi Trust Digital Library, the Library of Congress and several public libraries.
 
Developers have already determined the DPLA won’t be one big database, but a system that smoothly links databases scattered all over the country. It’ll run on an open source platform that can be worked into existing services. The first beta should be available in 2013. Keep up with developments via the DPLA planning wiki.
 
From the May/June 2012 issue Family Tree Magazine 

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