The main reading room of the New York Public Library., Mike Segar / Reuters-Corbis
In July, the Charlotte, N.C., library adopted a new budget that slashed nearly 30 percent of its funding and about 300 employees. In New York, libraries narrowly dodged an $82 million round of cuts thanks to public outcry earlier this year. The Milwaukee library system adopted austerity measures, only to find itself penalized for cutting too far. And the Free Library of Philadelphia only avoided a total shutdown through an act of the Pennsylvania State Senate.
A majority of the country’s library systems are having to make cuts, according to the American Library Association, and many of those cutbacks are quite devastating, even if the headline numbers aren’t as large. As cities and counties deal with the slow recovery, the budgets many of them adopted this summer for the 2011 fiscal year have placed large chunks of library funding on the block. For desperate officials, it’s a soft target, but librarians warn that cutting hours and positions might actually slow down the pace of recovery.
“Even back in the late 1970s inflationary times, I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Roberta Stevens, who’s on leave from a post at the Library of Congress to hold the presidency of the ALA. The stakes are high, she says: “We’re really talking about being not just a successful democracy but also in terms of global competitiveness. You don’t like to use these words, but they’ve always been about information literacy, and at this time, with such a wealth of information out there, you really need librarians to help you sort through what is out there.”
Take Charlotte, for example. The city has enjoyed years of growth and prosperity, drawing especially on the growth of Bank of America and Wachovia, and Mecklenburg County has offered a wide range of services. But as real-estate prices went south and took bank profits with them, the county saw its bottom line shrink drastically. Midway through fiscal year 2009, it cut $20 million from its budget, then slashed $76 million from the 2010 budget, and then cut yet another $20 million midyear. This year’s budget, after the cuts, is $1.35 billion.
As a result, the county told the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County late last year to expect the county’s funding, which accounted for more than 90 percent of the library’s budget, to sink in the coming year. Then, in March, the county announced that the library was going to get $2 million less for the remaining three months of fiscal year 2009, effectively cutting that year’s budget by 6 percent. The library board made plans to lay off 148 staffers—about a quarter of all employees—and indefinitely shutter 12 of its 24 locations, but after public outcry the board instead slashed hours at all locations without closing any. “Charlotte had been experiencing a boom. There really wasn’t much of a huge warning,” says library spokeswoman Angela Haigler. “Until then it was wonderful and happy.”
But funding for fiscal year 2011 was still sharply reduced, with Mecklenburg County cutting its funding from $31.7 million to $21.2 million. The library lobbied local municipalities, which chipped in an additional $2 million. Even with the extra cash, the library was forced to cut its hours by 56 percent, close four of the 24 branches, and lay off a third round of employees, while calling on community members to volunteer to help keep branches running. In total, the library has laid off around 300 staffers in the last year.
Michael Bryant, the Mecklenburg County budget manager, isn’t happy about the cuts; he says he and his family are frequent users of the library. But with funds from sales tax, the county’s biggest revenue source, dropping sharply and a legal requirement to keep the budget balanced, county commissioners didn’t have much choice, he says. “When you look at all the competing needs—education, health and human services, public safety—we have to look at where we have some discretion, and there’s discretion from library services and parks and recreation services,” he says. “Really nothing [in the county budget] was left unharmed. Education funding was reduced as well.” While no one wants to close a library, there’s no way to cut back on debt service for buildings, or medical services, a problem exacerbated by a population increase during the boom years.
The catch is that libraries are experiencing increased demand, too, in Charlotte and elsewhere. A study by the Institute of Museum and Library Services released in June found a 20 percent increase in library use over the last decade. And because libraries are often the only source, or one of a very few, for free Internet access and job counseling, the trend is only increasing during the recession, the ALA says. Anecdotal evidence suggests greater numbers of job seekers using library computers to look for jobs, write résumés, and seek advice. There’s also research that suggests that libraries contribute significantly to the prosperity of their communities, offering up to 800 percent return on investment for taxpayer dollars in job creation, productivity, and personal incomes.
Librarians aren’t staying quiet in the face of cuts, and—stereotypes notwithstanding—they’re not telling other people to be quiet either. In Brooklyn, librarians hosted a 24-hour readathon to raise public awareness of the impending budget cuts and to lobby for gentler cuts. The ALA is offering advice to libraries on how to effectively advocate for themselves and raise money through nongovernmental channels. With the help of two Ohio librarians, the trade magazine Library Journal launched a stand-alone site to track cuts across the country and to coordinate efforts to stanch the flow. Editor Francine Fialkoff says Losinglibraries.org is modeled on Paper Cuts, a site that aggregates newspaper-industry job losses.
The impact of cuts may not have hit home for most patrons, though. Outside the Brooklyn Public Library last week, Birgitta Victorson, who had been there for story time with her toddler son Magnus, said she hadn’t heard about the library’s budget problems. One reason, she said, was that she’d only recently started using the library: “Because of my own budget cuts at home, I have to find a way to utilize the library, because I can’t buy my own books.” She said the constant stream of people going in shows how important the library is as a center of the community.
Nearby, Paulette Brisette, another Brooklynite, said she uses the library frequently and likes to be able to consult with librarians. She’d heard about the budget reductions, but wasn’t surprised. “They always cut, just like education,” she said ruefully. And with states looking at tight times for the foreseeable future, it’s likely that both schools and libraries will see further cuts.