Libraries Fight to Avoid Budget Cuts As Usage Increases

December 31, 2008 01:31 PM
by Emily Coakley
Fights are brewing around the country and abroad over the fate of libraries, which advocates say are essential in tough economic times.

A Boom and Bust Time for Libraries

Bad economic times are a double-edged sword for libraries: people use them more to save money, but they are a target for budget cuts to save cities and counties money.

In Philadelphia this week, a judge halted Mayor Michael Nutter’s plan to close 11 libraries, the Associated Press reported.

A city law says the mayor can’t close a city-owned building if the city council doesn’t approve it first, the news service said. Library supporters had sued the city to stop the closures.

Philadelphia isn’t alone in considering library cuts. Towns of all sizes from the United States to the United Kingdom are struggling to balance budgets and save money as the economy worsens. Libraries are often on the chopping block.

But as the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports, many libraries are reporting an increase in visitors and use as the economy worsens. People who stop buying books or renting movies get them for free at libraries; parents take their children to the story hours, and library computers are in high demand as people forgo Internet access at home or look for jobs.

“Computer use is in high demand, so much so that at the Roseville Library people line up in the lobby before the doors open in the morning and rush to the terminals once they do,” the Star-Tribune reported.

“Generally when the economy takes a downturn, libraries nationwide experience an upturn in business,” Michael McConnell, who coordinates library services in Minneapolis, told the newspaper.

Some less drastic cost-cutting measures include reducing library branch hours.

But in other places, like Philadelphia, the community hasn’t reacted well to proposed cuts to libraries.

Earlier this month, a protest against plans to cut libraries and other recreational centers drew more than 300 people in the British town of Wallasey, which is outside of Liverpool, reported the Wirral Globe.

“These cuts will rip out the heart of the local community and create cultural deserts in this borough. Libraries are an integral part of this borough and closure would disenfranchise local residents,” said Jeff Brandman, the Globe reported.

In Chula Vista, outside of San Diego, approximately 200 people wanted to comment at a public meeting at the beginning of December on proposals to close a library and nature center.

The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that many speakers “wept” when commenting on the proposals.

Nearby San Diego is having budget problems, and the library system is among the services that could be cut. But San Diego is also in the middle of expanding or building new library branches, while the mayor proposed closing others, the newspaper reported in early December.

Opinion & Analysis: Readjust priorities; find something else to tax

San Diego’s treatment of its football team has drawn criticism from some, including one political science professor who says the city has “misplaced priorities,” according to the San Diego Reader.

“We need the Chargers as a marker. We spend millions for a ballpark but not one red cent for fire protection. We think we will be a second-class city without a pro football team but don’t spend a plugged nickel on basic public services and amenities,” said Steve Erie of the University of California at San Diego.

The Reader quoted Art Modell, who used to own professional football teams, as saying, “The pride and presence of a professional football team is far more important than 30 libraries,” and added that “intelligent people laughed” when he said that.

“Now San Diego, painfully broke, is the butt of the joke. It is discussing closing libraries while its establishment lobbies for subsidies for a team owned by a billionaire who is in much better financial shape than the City,” the Reader said.  

Across the country in Philadelphia, The Green Man, writing on the site Irregular Times, suggested the city’s mayor, Michael Nutter, tax cars instead of closing libraries. Because the city is such an expensive place to have a car, with insurance and parking fees, car owners could afford to pay a $1,000 annual tax, The Green Man concludes.

Even dropping an annual tax to $100 per car would bring in more than $40 million, versus the estimated $8 million in savings closing libraries would bring, the Irregular Times says.

“Nutter is nutters for choosing cars over community,” The Green Man wrote.

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