The future of libraries, part 2

The town of Hull, Massachusetts, is a comfortable blue-collar town on the tip of a little cape off of Boston’s south shore. At one time a fashionable resort, more recently it has been dealing with a declining tax base and an increased demand for services. Still, it’s a pleasant enough place, especially in the summer, when it attracts boatloads of tourists for summer rentals and a nice beach community. And it has a charming library, in an old Victorian building reeking with character, with an interesting book collection (some of which celebrates the town’s maritime history) and a fantastic children’s program. It’s pretty much what you want any locally municipal library to be, in fact.

Just like many other towns and cities in America, however, Hull library services have been the targets of cutbacks by the municipal government this past year. In fact, the cutbacks in this particular case were brutal—the annual library budget was cut from $240,000 in FY2009 to just $100,000 in 2010. This represented a 58% budget cut, while other municipal services saw budget cuts in single digits. And not only was this cut more aggressive than other Hull services, it was the largest library budget cut in the state of Massachusetts—only five other communities had cuts that were greater than 10%. As a result, the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners took a rather singular step—it decertified Hull’s public library.

This means that the library is no longer eligible for state monies or grants. It also means that Hull residents no longer enjoy borrowing privileges at neighboring community libraries, including nearby Hingham, which Hull residents used nearly as much as they did their own library. And while residents protested the municipality’s decision, the voters of Hull failed to override the municipality’s budget, which left the budget intact, with its draconian cuts. Bake sales and Harry Potter readings won’t be sufficient any more. Hull now has the distinction of being the only Massachusetts town or city without a certified public library.

So why would the folks who prepared and submitted the FY2010 budget be willing to go after their own library so aggressively—more aggressively than any other community in the state? Well, it’s a pretty blue collar community, with a fair number of retirees—not that this means anything in and of itself. So this is descriptive, not explanatory. It may be that it’s not a very well-run town, and the folks who prepared the budget just don’t really know what they’re doing. It may be that own leaders have it in for the town librarian—who doesn’t actually appear to be all that effective if he can’t prevent these kinds of cuts. But this is all speculation. And it’s not as if the town leaders lacked support for their proposals; voters had the opportunity to override the proposed budget—and chose not to.

In some respects, Hull is lucky in that it still does have a library. Libraries are closing at a record pace in the United States, and there’s no sign that the trend is slowing. In fact, given the trouble that municipalities find themselves in as a result of falling tax revenues, it’s likely that the cuts will accelerate. The Charlotte, North Carolina library system announced $2 million in cuts last May, following $4 million announced in 2009. New York City nearly implemented $37 million in cuts, but backed off at the last minute. Philadelphia wasn’t so lucky—the entire Free Library system actually closed, but was able to re-open following some emergency state funding. In Boston, the city’s plan to close some libraries entirely were ultimately canceled following threats by state lawmakers to cut off state funding if the closures proceeded (although, to be fair, the state didn’t offer to cough up extra state funding—in fact, it was the state cutting funding in the first place that precipitated the threatened closings).

There have been some exceptions to this trend, of course, but that’s what they are—exceptions. And it’s not likely that the recent elections are going to be encouraging to of free library services around the country. Unlike here in the UK, where there is a public law that requires local councils to provide library services (although what counts as minimal service is a but hard to say), there is no such federal law in the US, certainly, and it’s hard to find any such similar laws in the US at the local level. So we know what’s coming. It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for decision-makers at the state and local level these days. Cities are literally broke, and, like Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, are actively considering filing for bankruptcy protection (yes, cities and town can do that under Chapter 9 of the US Bankruptcy Code). And governors are facing some painful choices. Some of these folks are just plain batshit crazy, like that goofball up in Maine, but many are dedicated public servants who want to do the right thing, and are being squeezed. Still, you can see how library services are easy targets.

Not that the law in the UK is providing much protection these days, and the outlook for libraries is now considerably worse than when I last posted on this topic. The new Coalition government has instituted a wide ranging series of budget cuts, which are resulting in considerably less cash flowing from Westminster to localities. And localities are responding as you might expect–slashing library budgets right and left. At present, there are something like 375 libraries threatened with closure around Britain, although the number could well be higher. It’s hard to keep track. Oxfordshire seems prepared to close down 20 out of 43 libraries. Gloucestershire seems set to close 11 libraries, as part of a 43% cut to the library services budget. This pattern is being replicated all over Britain.

It’s fair to say that the proposed cuts of library services, and the outright closure of libraries, seems pretty draconian to many of us. Yes, there’s a budget crunch, but it’s no worse than what’s happening to states and municipalities around the US—some states are nearly bankruptcy, and many municipalities already are in everything but name. But here in the UK there’s an emerging movement to stop this in its tracks—not that there aren’t some libraries that should be closed, but the choices here should not be as draconian, or as binary, as authorities would have us believe. The estimable Camden New Journal reports that the London Borough of Camden, where I live, is to cut 20% of its library budget, and has recently proposed that users make a choice among the following:

Users will be asked whether they would prefer Swiss Cottage Library to shut down completely, five smaller libraries to close or a 40 per cent opening hour reduction across the board.

Well, this sounds pretty dire, and I would happily choose none of the above. But a number of questions arise when I ponder this—first of all, who made these the only choices? I know the Borough is under pressure to cut stuff, because going on in the article I read this:

The suggestions are part of a consultation package, unveiled exclusively to the New Journal ahead of the launch today, aimed at finding where regulars think £2million worth of cuts should be made.

Labour councillors insist they have been forced into making cuts by government demands to cut between £80m to £100m of its overall budget.

The consultation package states that a further £500,000 could be saved if they reduced the new book budget by 40 per cent, and that a further £100,000 could be found by raising the levels of fines for overdue books.

Other suggestions include using volunteers instead of staff, handing over the management of the centres to Friends groups, and freezing spending on computers and furniture.

OK, none of this sounds optimal, but it appears that at least there’s been a little bit of thought involved here. But then I go on and discover that in 1998, the year we moved here, the Borough was attempting to close libraries as well:

Camden Public Libraries Users Group chairman Alan Templeton said: “Unfortunately, the good library service of the early Camden years has been continuously eroded. The history of Camden has been punctuated by the closure and attempted closure of libraries. In 1998, Camden attempted to close three small libraries as the first phase of a larger closure programme. As a direct result of the 1998 battle, there has been enduring mistrust of Camden Council’s intentions with respect to its libraries. That battle was bitter and questionable tactics were used by the council. The wounds received, on both sides, have not really healed and the council has decided that it is time to put matters right – get the closures out of the way, once and for all.”

And it turns out that Camden is not really helping its argument out when we discover that they’re spending £25,000 to hire consultants to monitor the results of the poll. Say what? We can’t find some volunteers to do this?

It gets better, of course. Because it turns out that Camden isn’t only threatening to close libraries (including the library closest to where Labour Leader Ed Miliband lives.) It’s building one, too, at considerable cost and controversy. And then you remember why local councils take quite a lot of abuse—it’s not clear that they always know what they’re doing. Yes, it’s a thankless job, but still, a bit less duplicity would improve everyone’s mood here.

Well, it’s good to see that there is quite a lot of concern over this issue, although in the near term it’s not clear that much can be done to stop the bulk of these cuts. But people are angry, and taking action. People who like libraries are ornery, smart, and wily, and we know how to the stuff done, like mobilizing a community. But it’s going to be tough, given the fiscal realities. It’s enough to make me think about moving to Vienna, that well-known city of the future.

Simon Jenkins isn’t necessarily convinced. He’s sympathetic, of course, but points out the same thing I mentioned the last time I posted on this—libraries are losing patrons:

The trouble is that a dwindling number of people exist in the gap between those who are not remotely interested in books and those who can find literary stimulus without the intercession of the state. In the galaxy of possible cuts to local services, the closure of perhaps a fifth of London’s neighbourhood libraries may be sad but does it really constitute what Philip Pullman calls, in the argot of his trade, “the darkening of things”?

For older readers, libraries are like cod-liver oil, Hovis and branch-line steam trains. They evoke nostalgia for lost youth, even if few can state when they last borrowed a book from one. I hesitate to suggest that applies to most of the celebrities who gathered for last Saturday’s “shh-in” for Save Our Libraries Day. The truth is that library visits have fallen some 20 per cent over the decade and book borrowing by a third.

Libraries aren’t the only thing facing reduced budgets, of course, and it’s not as if Councils around England have it in for libraries in particular, although some may—there’s enough anti-intellectualism to go around these days, both in the UK and the US, although thankfully there’s a lot less of it here. But these are not happy times for library lovers anywhere in the US or the UK. I suspect the carnage will be greater in the US, simply because the US already has a venerable history of book censorship, like the UK—but the UK pretty much gave that up after the Lady Chatterly decision, whereas the forces of censorship are alive and well throughout the US. So that make me think US libraries are a lot more vulnerable. I’d be happy to be proved wrong here, of course, but I’m not optimistic.

Well, what about privatizing the libraries? Would that help? Actually, I’m not sure, and have to say that at present I’m pretty agnostic. We belong to a private library, The London Library, and it’s great. Not cheap, but great nonetheless. But it’s not a profit-making enterprise, nor should it be. And that’s the rub. It’s not clear to me that library services should be a private function. Like many other domains, there’s probably a healthy debate to be had here, but to the extent that we’re having it at all, it’s not exactly under optimal circumstances. But it looks as if there’s a test case being run even as I write, but it’s too soon to tell whether this will work out. But I have to say that I was surprised to learn that a private company is the fifth-largest library system in the US. Ironically, the community described in the Times story above saw no actual funding threat to the libraries—they just wanted to try it out. But, as the article makes clear, passions are already running high. I’m trying to keep an open mind here, but I admit I have to work at it—it just sounds like a bad idea. But why? It’s presumably occurring under a contract with the municipality that probably prevents the company from doing bad stuff, like eliminating certain kinds of services, but I have to say I don’t know. Librarians certainly think it’s a horrible idea, and they may be right.

Jenkins points out something that I wasn’t aware of, though:

I can just recall when the local library was privately supplied by Boots the chemist, run at the back of the pharmacy and charging tuppence a week per book. They lasted until 1966, when they were finally run out of business by ratepayer libraries. There were gloriously musty rooms lined with books at the back of the chemists, where adults would gather and chat over the latest best-seller for hours, while I was allowed my weekly Arthur Ransome.

Wow, so that’s what passed for libraries back then. Well, not exactly. There have been public libraries for decades, including Carnegie libraries, all over England. I imagine there was an expansion of library services over the decades, and now we’re facing the retrenchment. But Jenkins goes on with what I think may be an interesting suggestion:

Besides, the free supply of a product or service by the state clearly drives independents out of business, none more obviously than public libraries have done to private libraries, bookshops and now music stores. I am not clear how that helps the cultural life of the nation, but the state monopoly on book lending is clearly failing to sustain demand. Unlike bookshops, libraries are shut much of the time.

Libraries should be a gift to the Big Society movement, which in this case should be the small society. Books are classic recyclable products, as the vitality of second-hand bookselling shows. They are things people lend, exchange, buy, sell and dump on others. Two-thirds of books are bought as gifts, fuelling a natural market in their re-use. Many booksellers survive on people giving them stock for free.

It cannot be beyond our wits to marry bookselling and book borrowing. If a lending library could once have been part of a chemist or W H Smith, why not now? Perhaps it could go into partnership with a local coffee bar, as in one I visited in California. If a community wants to keep its library and is ready to use volunteers to keep it going, let it. Leave it free to levy a parish-style local tax to do so, as for parks and gardens. It is wrong that the unions should have a stranglehold on library employment, which merely increases the chance of their having to close.

Well, I think he’s dead wrong on that last sentence, but the rest of it is actually sort of an interesting idea. There’s a lot of fear about using volunteers. But if a community decides that it’s the library or the ambulance service, which it may be on some cases, that’s a no-brainer. I’m game. Besides, volunteers in libraries are a long,standing tradition. And the bookstore/library, or library/coffee shop, or library/pool hall idea should at least be considered. We can still have professional librarians, and the make great bookstore owners too. Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont, where I have spent many happy hours, was started by children’s librarians, if I remember correctly.

It’s not as if libraries aren’t already struggling with increasing uncertainty as to their public function. Jenkins is right—at least in Britain, library use is down, as is bookstore use. And this leads to the even bigger question facing libraries as they are fighting to stave off mass closures during a time of public budget distress—what are libraries for these days? The role of the library still fills some of the functions that it used to—it’s a gathering place, a community center, a place to do your homework, or meet other young mothers, or whatever. But these social roles, while undeniably important in many communities, aren’t really what libraries are for—it’s a public function that libraries sort of evolved into over the past several decades. And while it‘s an undeniably valuable public function, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s what libraries should be doing, nice as it is to have them doing it.

Libraries are, at heart, repositories of information. For the past 500 years, that has meant books. But that’s changing now. The future of libraries, assuming someone will be paying for them, is inextricably entwined with the future of books. And that’s an even more interesting question, which I’ll be rambling on about in the next post. Meanwhile, get over to the library, buy some coffee for the nice (and underpaid) librarian, and take out a couple of books. They need the traffic, and you’ll feel better the whole rest of the day.

3 replies »

  1. As a victim of the harsh economy, I find myself working longer and harder for less and less pay. I could no longer afford cable TV, internet, or to buy or rent any form of media. The library has been my saviour. I educate myself with DVD’s and non-fiction. I use the computers for research, and to stay informed. I enjoy some entertainment via other books, or sites. I don’t know how I would get by without it. Our local libraries have been cut way back in budget. But have ever more crowded in use. They are a great and valuable resource for a large portion of Americans.

  2. As a US retiree (baby-boomer generation) I dread the cuts to my library and fight them however I can. Reading all the books I never had time to read while I was working was something I dreamed about and now am fullfilling that dream at the rate of about two books per week. Our economy being what it is my pension doesn’t keep up with costs and being able to read all I want without charge is a blessing that I truly appreciate. I just wish politicians cared about what retirees think.