Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Budget Cuts are Too Harsh on City’s Library

The bones and sinew of a public library are its collection and staff. People often think of the one and not the other-but both are intertwined. At Mary Riley Styles Public Library in the City of Falls Church both are threatened by the city manager’s proposed budget.

With the effects of the “Great Recession” grinding inexorably through municipal, county, and state finances it is no surprise that local governments are forced to downsize.

In Falls Church, where the budget cycle began early in preparation for the city’s new fiscal year, the Library Board of Trustees worked closely with library staff to prepare for a variety of possible budget contingencies.

City Manager Wyatt Shields requested all agencies to submit proposed budgets incorporating 10% cuts in light of the serious economic conditions. The Library Board of Trustees worked closely with City Hall to respond to this request by proposing the least damaging reductions, all of which we considered regrettable, and with the hope that costs of the reduction burden would be shared proportionally across City agencies.

This was not the case.

We on the Board of Trustees very much regret that the proposed cut in library funding of almost 6% appears to be significantly greater than reductions proposed for most other City services, some of which actually increase (see pages 34, 35 of the proposed budget).

Irony is a cruel taskmaster, and our proposed cuts come amid years of steadily rising usage.

Of nine personnel positions to be eliminated citywide, four of them (45%) are in the library. This equates to approximately 25% of our workforce. Similarly, four positions are targeted for reduced hours citywide, and three of them (75%) are in the library.

Irony is a cruel taskmaster, and our proposed cuts come amid years of steadily rising usage. Circulation has increased during each of the past several years and more people use the library every year. Last year the library circulated a whopping 458,500 items-up from 429,300 the year before, and from 365,800 before that. This is a tremendous and astounding number for a small, single-site library such as ours.

In addition, the proposed cuts jeopardize the high quality services the library provides. We have been recognized for three years in a row as a “star” library, one of only three libraries in Virginia to receive this award. Only the top 298 out of 7,407 public libraries nationwide qualified for the award, which is based on such criteria as usage, circulation, and public programs.

We believe the public needs to know the proposed cuts will have significant impacts on services, including:

• 20% reduction in operating hours;

• loss of four employees;

• approximately 1,000 fewer new adult and children’s books;

• 45% cut in magazine subscriptions, eliminating such popular titles as Better Investing, Esquire, Harper’s, GQ, Ms Magazine, New York magazine, Sunset, Yankee, Commentary, Car and Driver, and Science;

• Longer lines at service desks, due to employee layoffs; and fewer children’s and adult programs.

One of our chief strengths has been our book collection, and particularly our new titles, which track popular best seller lists. Several of our constituencies-such as senior citizens-do not have convenient means by which to travel outside the city to book stores to purchase these books, and are unable to afford them on fixed incomes.

We also anticipate hosting fewer children’s programs-a painful decision given the wild popularity of our existing programming (almost all our events are standing-room-only, garnering upwards of 14,000 attendees per year).

Although the public has clamored for longer hours, we must instead reduce the library’s operating hours from 64 per week to 55. By changing operating hours throughout the week the board found a way to restore our popular Sunday afternoon hours-but at the expense of Wednesday morning hours and an hour or so each weekday. Our net loss per week is nine hours.

Our additional hours of closure will also hurt the many citizens who use our free wireless service. At any given time during the day an average of 14 citizens may be found throughout the library, using personal laptops connected to our wireless network. We are their digital gateway, particularly for those who cannot afford the cost of monthly Internet connectivity.

As Philip Pullman put it, “You’re a citizen of that great democratic space that opens up between you and the book. And the body that gave it to you is the public library.”

The City Council will hear from citizens on the budget at a public meeting on April 16. We will be there to express our views; please join us. Show your support for lessening these impacts by making the library’s cuts more proportionate. Help keep our library the pride of the City-let our City Council hear from you.

 

 


 

Bradley Gernand is chair of the Mary Riley Styles Public Library Board of Trustees.

 

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