Library funding cuts write new chapter
Called the “great information equalizers,” public libraries help residents find jobs, teach literacy and English as a second language classes, and offer outreach programs to children and teens. In spite of the broad range of services, libraries have suffered funding cuts within the last 18 months that have exceeded $111 million and threatened services nationwide, according to the Chicago-based American Library Association (ALA). To keep their books and doors open, libraries are promoting their services and asking residents to dig deep into their pockets to help cover costs.
“The most important thing is making sure that your community is aware of the library and what the library can do,” says Carol Brey-Casiano, president of ALA and director of the El Paso, Texas, Public Library. “Typically we find there’s strong support, but people don’t know how to show it.”
For the Stark County, Ohio, Library District (SCLD), paring down branch hours, purchasing fewer new books and letting vacant staff positions remain unfilled were not enough to offset the more than 5 percent, or $800,000, reduction in its annual operating budget over the past four years. In 2003 and 2004, two tax measures, which would have provided additional sources of funding, were rejected by voters.
Instead of closing branches, SCLD fought back with a public education campaign promoting a one-mill tax levy on the November 2004 ballot. The $70,000 campaign was paid for by Vote Libraries, a local group supported by donations and fund raisers. “The ability to provide media and print information and explain the reasons for the levy made a real difference,” says Kent Oliver, SCLD library director.
The levy passed by a 57 percent vote and guarantees the library $4.7 million annually for the next five years. In January, SCLD significantly increased its hours for the first time in 10 years.
In Downers Grove, Ill., a Chicago suburb with 48,724 residents, the public library has learned the value of marketing itself. In 1997, the library, located in the central business district, needed $8 million for a crucial building project. Downers Grove had just completed a parking study in the business district to determine which area locations were generating the most traffic. Armed with the statistic that the library was the No. 1 destination, Library Director Christopher Bowen approached the Chamber of Commerce. “All of a sudden, we had huge support from the merchants for a building project, as long as we stayed in the area,” he says. An $8 million library referendum passed in the spring of 1997.
Since then, Downers Grove library has hosted events to raise more money and awareness. The library’s annual auction, for instance, has raised more than $20,000 in the past two years and has become a social event for the suburb. Because downtown merchants are heavily involved in the fund raiser, the library is adding resources and hosting a series of speakers targeting small-business owners, an investment Bowen hopes will pay off in donations when those businesses become more established. Additionally, the library has raised more than $100,000 by selling inscribed bricks for a garden walkway and has set up an area on its Web site for patron credit card donations.
Libraries across the nation have expressed reluctance and a lack of education regarding fund raising and asking residents for assistance. As president of ALA, Brey-Casiano’s initiative for the year is establishing a grass roots network to help libraries mobilize support within their communities. “I think ultimately the community has to take the responsibility for some of the library’s funding,” she says. In short, communities can either help pay for libraries now or suffer later when funding cuts spell the end of library services.
Library bookkeeping notes
Libraries serve more than two-thirds of the public with less than 2 percent of tax dollars.
Thirty-seven percent of library computer users earning less than $15,000 per year say their only access to the Internet is at the public library.
Eighty-eight percent of libraries in communities with less than 1,000 residents have budgets of less than $21,000. In those communities, 42 percent of residents live below the poverty line.
President Bush’s proposed FY06 budget includes $221 million for library programs at the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a $15 million increase over the previous year.
SOURCES: American Library Association, February 2005; University of Washington, October 2002, “People from Low-Income Families Disproportionately Use Library Computers;” University of Washington, January 2003, “The Impact of Public Access Computing on Rural and Small Town Libraries.”