Librarians' last stand: They fight back to preserve stacks

In New York and other states, they ask cities to raise taxes and solicit donations to offset huge budget cuts.

Amid the rows of encyclopedias in the New Rochelle Public Library, Jon Nardelli waits for his next student to arrive. The tutor leans against a white table, waves a hand at the tomes, and remarks, "Can you imagine if all this went away? It's like the voices of these books would be silenced."

It's a provocative thought - and it almost became reality. Faced with deep budget cuts that would have forced it to close its doors indefinitely, the library asked the community earlier this month to vote on a tax increase.

New Rochelle, a small, working-class city in southern New York, isn't the only town with library challenges. As the sluggish economy continues to stretch budgets thin, some 32 states, as well as the District of Columbia, are reporting cutbacks in library funding, according to the American Library Association (ALA).

But librarians are fighting back. They're reminding voters of the importance of Winnie-the-Pooh and, as was the case in New Rochelle, they're urging the community to approve local tax levies. They're also asking constituents and corporations alike to sponsor Eloise and her pets Skipperdee and Weenie with generous donations.

"Librarians are basically the gatekeepers to the effort because they see the problem on the horizon before library patrons do," says Sally Reed, executive director of Friends of Libraries USA.

One argument in librarians' favor: Their institutions are enjoying heavy patron use, refuting some people's concerns about libraries staying relevant in the Internet age.

"What's especially troubling is that since the dotcom bubble burst, public libraries have been giving more service from every indicator," says Mourice Freedman, president of the ALA and director of the Westchester Library System in New York. "Libraries are experiencing record use. And for what would have been rewarded with huge bonuses and increased stock valuation in private industry because of all of these service increases, instead is being 'rewarded' by cutbacks in support."

In the case of New Rochelle, a 1996 state law ordered small cities to present their budgets for a community vote before any tax could be imposed. Yet library director Patricia Anderson says her staff was not aware of the law until 2001, and it continued to receive city funding. But then, she says, "The city has run out of funds ... [and] it has given us warning that it will not" fund the library.

To reinstate support, the community voted 7,269 to 4,531 to approve a property tax increase to grant the library $3 million for the year. "People have said philanthropy should take care of it. I personally think that's a little unrealistic when you're talking about $3 million every year," says Beth Mills, supervisor of the reference department and a staff member for 27 years.

Other communities are taking similar approaches. In Ohio, where libraries have seen a big decrease in state funding, approximately 30 percent of the state libraries have local levies, says Doug Evans, executive director of the Ohio Library Council. Recently, the Cleveland Public Library asked the community to raise the tax levy to $31 million per year for operation costs. Sixty percent voted in favor.

"We're facing bad economic times, and once we communicated what we needed, we received [the community's] support," says Arthur Venable Jr., director of the Cleveland Public Library.

Cincinnati, meanwhile, chose instead to hire a development director to look into local fundraising and donation requests, as many libraries across the nation have. Last year, the library sent letters asking for contributions to library patrons and previous donors. Through this campaign, they raised $68,000. "Our board has felt strongly that [the community] already pays income tax and that an extra tax levy would be a burden," says Kim Fender, executive director of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

The New York Public Library mounted a similar drive recently, aiming for $18 million for the next three years. The library faces about $7.3 million in funding cuts, says Caroline Oyama, manager of public relations. "All our libraries [offer] at least six days of service, with eight open seven days a week. What we're facing is some libraries at four days a week," she says.

Other libraries are trying out still other ideas. The Pennsylvania Library Association (PaLA), for example, organized Library Legislative Day on June 3 to discuss funding with legislators. The new state budget will cut library funding by 50 percent. More than 600 people gathered in Harrisburg for the event. "We want to make our point with people one on one," says Glenn Miller, executive director of the PaLA. "We can't sit back."

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