Branch Closings and Budget Cuts Threaten Libraries Nationwide

Branch Closings and Budget Cuts Threaten Libraries Nationwide

City governments across the United States prepared in early November to slash public library budgets in the wake of revenue shortfalls and dire economic news. Even if the lame-duck Congress passes an additional economic stimulus package when it returns from recess the week leading up to Thanksgiving—an increasingly unlikely outcome, according to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.)—funding is unlikely to find its way to local coffers in time to make a difference.

In a grim November 6 speech in which he called for sweeping job cuts and service reductions in many city departments, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter announced the permanent closing of 11 out of 54 library branches and the elimination of Sunday hours at the three regional branches. “Make no mistake,” Nutter said as he unveiled his plan to bridge a five-year, $1-billion budget gap. “This will be a mid-year revision of epic proportions, and because this recession may linger beyond next year, we can’t look for brief, one-time changes.”

The library cuts took many residents by surprise, because Nutter, as a city councilman in 2005, played a decisive role in blocking the Free Library of Philadelphia from reducing branch hours and laying off staff during a similar budget crunch. But Nutter told the Philadelphia Metro newspaper that closing libraries is something he never dreamed he’d have to do. “I grew up in the Cobbs Creek branch,” he said. “[And] one of the happiest days in my daughter Olivia’s life [is] when I took her to the Central branch to get her library card. She still talks about it.”

FLP President and Director Siobhan Reardon told American Libraries that the branches would close no later than January 16. “The buildings that are city owned will be turned back to the city’s department of public property,” she said. “All of the library’s assets—staff, technology, materials, and equipment—will be redeployed to nearby libraries that are large enough to handle the additional resources.” She indicated that the library senior staff had chosen which branches to close, based on circulation, building condition, and proximity to other facilities, and the board of trustees approved the plan.

Pink slips will be issued to as many as 70 library employees in early December, Reardon said, although she hoped to reduce that number by not filling even more than the 41 open positions already slated for attrition. “My hope is that as dollars return to the system, we will be able to add staff to the remaining branches and expand our outreach efforts, which are more tied to the community than library buildings.”

Amy Dougherty, executive director of the Friends of the Free Library, told AL that library advocates were planning 11 rallies before Thanksgiving to protest the closings, as well as the 20% reduction in the library budget over the next two years. “We’re not going to take this quietly,” she said. “We will be reaching out to federal, state, and local lawmakers to discuss options.”

Library distress elsewhere

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders has proposed temporarily shuttering seven library branches—including Ocean Beach, one of the city’s oldest—to close a $43-million budget deficit, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported November 6. The San Diego board of library commissioners unanimously voted to oppose the move November 5, and quoted statistics showing that circulation had risen by 8% in the past three months.

Judith Harris, chair of the San Diego Public Library Foundation, told reporters, “All San Diegans are suffering from the current economic woes, and cutting their free support system will leave them feeling further abandoned by their elected officials.” The city council was scheduled to discuss the library closures in public hearings November 12 and 19.

New York Public Library hours could also be on the chopping block, according to a tentative financial plan announced November 5 by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Revenues have “started to fall off the cliff,” Bloomberg warned. Among his proposed remedial measures are a 2.5% cut in subsidies to libraries and cultural institutions this year and 5% next year, the New York Times reported November 5, resulting in an average reduction of days open per week in the branches from 6 to 5.5.

The Hawaii Board of Education recommended a 10% cut in the budget of the state’s only public library system October 24. The reduction is less than what Gov. Linda Lingle asked for, according to the October 27 Honolulu Star-Bulletin, but even with $3 million less to work with, all 51 libraries will be able to stay open. Lingle’s requested 15% cut would have forced up to six branches to close. New acquisitions and program budgets will suffer and a hiring freeze will leave 57 vacancies unfilled, CBS affiliate KGMB-TV reported October 24. Wailuku Branch Manager Susan Werner said in the October 22 Maui News that her library’s circulation in September was 48.9% greater than a year ago. “The economy might have something to do with that,” she added.

Ohio library budgets are growing lean in an uncertain economy due to a new library funding formula introduced by Gov. Ted Strickland in 2007 that guarantees libraries 2.2% of the state’s general tax revenue. In rural Paulding County, the Carnegie Library was forced to ask for a .65-mil levy in November for the first time in its 90 years of operation. The ballot was defeated by roughly 53% to 47%, Director Susan Pieper told AL. Now, the board faces cutting branch hours and eliminating Saturday service altogether, as well as drastic reductions in the book and DVD budget, raising fees for copies and faxes, and cutting staff paychecks by five hours per week.

“This will mean that even I will take a $6,000-a-year cut,” Pieper said. “We may put the levy back on in February. Otherwise, times certainly look bleak. I pray Congress passes a stimulus package for libraries and that those funds would be made available to the rural libraries that need it so desperately.”

In other areas:

  • Phoenix (Ariz.) Public Library may shut down for one day each week and slash its acquisition fund, according to a budget proposal to be released by the city January 6.
  • A $1.2-million budget shortfall at the Fort Vancouver (Wash.) Regional Library District could mean closing a well-used mall branch or cutting back hours at all its facilities in 2009.
  • Even the Chicago Public Library, which benefited from the 2007 passage of an $83.4-million property-tax increase to augment its budget, will double its fines for the first time since 1991, from 10 cents to 20 cents a day with a $10 ceiling. “We collected $1.2 million in fees and fines last year,” CPL Commissioner Mary Dempsey said in the October 28 Chicago Sun-Times, “We anticipate, under this proposal, an additional $1.6 million.”

The American Library Association has asked Congress to include $100 million for libraries as part of any stimulus package it considers. In an October 29 letter to two Senators and two Representatives on the Joint Economic Committee, ALA President Jim Rettig wrote, “Simply put, libraries provide our communities with free services that will help our unemployed find jobs and stimulate our economy.” But many other organizations are competing for a piece of the same stimulus pie that could include tens of billions in unemployment insurance benefits, food stamps, and aid to the states for infrastructure and transportation spending.

Despite President-elect Barack Obama’s November 7 call for a “stimulus package sooner rather than later,” relief may have to wait until the 111th Congress takes office. Rep. Hoyer said in The Hill November 7 that the Bush administration has balked at some proposals, and “Clearly there’s no point in us doing something if the administration is going to take the position that they’re not going to sign something.”

Posted on November 7, 2008; revised November 10, 2008. Discuss.