“Annus Horribilis” for Public Libraries

Some years ago I remember Queen Elizabeth describing a particularly difficult year for the royal family as her annus horribilis.  I don’t know Latin, but the meaning is plain enough, and I think the Queen’s words well describe the kind of year many public libraries are having as they struggle to come to grips with budget cuts.     

Folks around here have heard plenty lately about Greensboro Public Library’s budget woes. 

But there are so many libraries around the country with funding problems this year, especially in our larger cities, some might get the impression that we are dangerously close to an institutional crisis:  i.e., a situation in which the survival of the public library as a vital and enduring part of American life — dedicated to providing unfettered information access to all — is literally at risk.  

Back in March we heard of the dire situation for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Library (NC), which had to lay off staff, reduce hours and cut salaries just to get through FY 2009-10.  They now face the prospect of a 45.5% reduction for FY 2010-11 which would necessitate additional layoffs and the closure of sixteen branches.  Their budget, which in FY 2008-09 exceeded $40 million, may be cut to $17.67 million.

New York Public Library is facing a similar dilemma of over $36 million in cuts and may lose over one-third of its staff to layoffs.  As many as ten libraries there may be forced to close, and significant reductions in operating hours seem likely for those which will remain open. 

Dallas Public Library (TX), as this article describes, has gone from a $32 million budget of just a few years ago to the likelihood of being slashed to $13 million for the next fiscal year — if the budget currently proposed for the City of Dallas is approved.   

Even the Board of Trustees of the venerable Boston Public Library was forced to shutter four branches this year in order to close a $3.6 million dollar budget gap

If you care to do a Google search, you can find plenty more examples of libraries in trouble.  

Of course, the budget woes of public libraries have a great deal to do with the recession — no need to go into that here — but the real shame is that the people who need libraries the most during tough times — the unemployed seeking jobs, the “information have-nots,” the families who can’t afford supplemental reading materials and computers for their children — are the folks for whom tough times are the toughest.

The simple fact is that there are no easy answers for libraries.  Faced with shrinking revenues and forced to choose between the essential and the less essential, municipal governments more often than not place public libraries in the latter category.  And it is true that providing access to information is not tangible in the same way as some other governmental obligations, such as public safety (though the ability to search for things like a job or health information can be no less vital). 

However, a good bit of the institutional value of public libraries is really intangible and thus very difficult to measure, which is perhaps all too easy to forget in difficult times like these.  Support for a robust, healthy public library system is not just about the here and now:  it also shows that a community looks to and cares about its future.

By this I mean that institutions like libraries (as well as museums, art galleries and other cultural institutions) exist as public spaces where individuals and groups in a community can acquaint themselves with the ideas which transcend that community.  Public libraries thus offer us the power of knowledge (which I would define here as taking ideas and from them creating new ones), something hugely important to any community which seeks to grow in its understanding, to be dynamic, to quite literally make new community

This is in fact where the public library takes up the role sometimes described as the “people’s university.”  A public library exists not simply as a vehicle for receiving or accessing information, but also as an acknowledgment by a community that it values creativity (its existence is in a sense a civic statement to that effect).  A public library is a repository for general information, traditions, history, yes, but it is also a repository for the raw materials from which new traditions, ideas, art, etc., will come.  And perhaps above all, its perpetuation and preservation as a viable institution ensures everyone has access to those raw materials.

At any rate, I’ve rambled on too long.  I believe public libraries will weather this crisis.  They will likely be transformed in the future, perhaps in ways which we today would find virtually unrecognizable, but in a free society such as ours there will always be an institutional niche for something like a public library.

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2 Responses

  1. so will the Greensboro library have to close? I am an artist and the books there are an invaluable resource.

  2. Greensboro Public Library survived a tough budget year intact. Hopefully the economy will pick up and next year won’t be so difficult. Thanks for your support.

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