As the editor of American Libraries Online, I’m always on the lookout for news stories to research and develop about libraries and trends affecting them. Because libraries impact just about every aspect of society, there’s an impressive daily deluge to sort through, as& the abundance of annotated links in our weekly e-newsletter American Libraries Direct attests.
However, the global economic crisis has turned that deluge into a fiscal tsunami for libraries, and has raised the threshold for what is newsworthy rather tellingly. There was a time when American Libraries would cover just about every threatened library service cutback or closure that the editors got wind of. In fact, libraries threatened with closure made national headlines in the general press: Even the New York Times covered the near-demise in 2005 of the Salinas (Calif.) Public Libraries, while American Libraries Online trumpeted its subsequent return to fiscal health after voters relented and agreed to properly fund the three-branch system. The library world was similarly startled by the six-month shutdown in 2007 of the Jackson County (Oreg.) Libraries due to the loss of federal logging-industry subsidies.
What makes news in any field is the unusual, the unimaginable, the offbeat. That’s what rivets readers. For the time being in libraryland, however, what used to be unimaginable has become all too commonplace. Several times a week, the editors of American Libraries see headlines and postings about yet another local governing authority looking to make ends meet by slashing library service hours, laying off staff—or even closing one or more branches. Closure threats come and go in cities like Hartford, San Diego, Concord, Memphis, Trenton, and Philadelphia. For those who like their crises serialized, there’s the annual deficit dance in New York City, which is currently in full swing.
Well, the ante has risen again on what constitutes a newsworthy library crisis. This month, American Libraries is following the quest for stable library funding at the state level in New Jersey, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, California, and Connecticut—with no telling where else red ink may run. New Jersey legislators are considering a bill backed by a municipal league to halve a barely sufficient third-of-a-mill funding formula only a year after the library community averted a similar attempt. Pennsylvania lawmakers have before them a choice of slashing state library aid by 50% or 5%; the state library association is willing to consider it a victory to retain FY2009 funding levels. In California, the May 19 defeat of five ballot initiatives has created budget chaos for public, academic, and school libraries as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger looks to balance the state books by taking back some local aid amid other cuts.
And so it goes. But there’s another aspect of all this that makes news each and every time: grassroots activism. That’s what kept the doors open in Philadelphia, Memphis, San Diego, and Trenton; what budget-makers in Concord and New York City are up against; and what state library associations elsewhere are tapping into as lawmakers wrangle over priorities. It’s what got the school librarians of Washington State into the (albeit unfunded) definition of what constitutes a basic education and has lit a fire in the bellies of other library lovers. In this regard, public libraries are following hard on the heels of school library media programs, whose dedicated media specialists and aides have been fighting marginalization for decades. They may lose battles along the way, but always seem to come back swinging.
May the time soon come when I can once again regard as a man-bites-dog anomaly the occasional news tip about a threat to library funding.