Walk into any public library these days and you'll see the
subtle signs of recession.
There, just past the entrance, is a "recently returned" cart
full of books still waiting to be re-shelved. See the long line of
people waiting to check out, with only one staff member available?
Look at how popular those free computers have become. Did you
notice the many users who are creating resumes or searching for
It may be subtle now, but soon, libraries may have to balance
their dwindling budgets by cutting services, jeopardizing
everything from preschool story hour to buying new books.
"It's the terrible bind that libraries are in," says Sarah Ann
Long, executive director of the North Suburban Library System, one
of nine regional library support systems in the state. "They face
increased usage and a drop in revenue at the same time."
Historically, economic downturns have always equaled an increase
in library patronage. People take advantage of free access to
books, movies and computer time. Long, a former president of the
American Library Association, says more people applied for a
library card nationwide last year than ever before. Evanston Public
Library's circulation went up almost 20 percent last year.
"People are coming to the library to help them with their job
search," she says. "Employers want an online application and resume
… and librarians can help. Libraries are becoming like job
But a recession also means reduced local and state budgets and a
drop in library funding just when it's needed most. Because local
property taxes lag a year or two behind, the drop in property
values-and resulting drop in tax collections-are just now hitting
So, even if the economy is slowly improving, library systems
likely haven't faced the worst of the budget crisis. "The outlook
is not great," Long says.
The outlook includes a dismal state budget. Earlier this year,
the Illinois General Assembly's attempt to address the budget
crisis resulted in 50 percent cuts in per capita grants, a vital
source of funding for school and public libraries.
Secretary of State Jesse White managed to mitigate the cuts by
reallocating federal funds that would normally have gone towards
technological advances in libraries. As a result, grants to public
libraries were cut just 16 percent, but Long notes such solutions
are simply short-term fixes.
Long says they are initiating an e-mail targeted campaign this
month to state legislators.
"We're asking legislators to promise to not cut libraries any
more and that, when the economy improves, they restore and fully
fund grants," she says.
In the meantime, because personnel take up a majority of a
library's budget, many libraries have already cut staff to
compensate. Both Evanston and Chicago public libraries, for
example, are down at least 10 percent of their full-time staff.
Ruth Lednicer, spokesperson for the Chicago Public Libraries,
says the biggest loss in staff were those who re-shelved books.
Even office staff members, such as those in the accounting office,
are heading to libraries to help shelve books.
Chicago Public Libraries has already taken steps to prepare for
next year's tight budget. Beginning in January, hours for local
branches will be reduced to eight-hour days on a staggered
schedule. For example, one library may be open 10 a.m.-6 p.m., but
a library nearby will be open noon-8 p.m. to allow patrons to
access an open branch.
"This is the least disruptive way to scale back and allow our
staff to be least stretched thin, while giving patrons the service
they deserve," Lednicer said. She expects the schedule to continue
until the economy improves.
Still, Lednicer says that while times are challenging, Chicago
faces a brighter future than some major cities. In September, the
entire Seattle library system was closed for a week to compensate
for budget cuts. The public library in Philadelphia faced the
possibility of closing its doors permanently if the cash-strapped
state failed to provide funding.
Closer to home, the small library in Robbins, a village in Cook
County, almost closed its doors permanently due to the recession's
impact. The library was saved, at least for now, by NBA superstar
Dwyane Wade, who grew up in Robbins and donated an unspecified
amount in September.
As the Illinois General Assembly meets to discuss the budget
this month, and as many communities will also be planning future
budgets, libraries will learn more about their future. Worst case
scenarios-including cutting programs, periodicals and newspapers,
or even library hours-are already being developed.
Evanston's Library Director Mary Johns says they are considering
changes that might help reduce costs and prevent worst-case
scenarios from coming true.
"We're contemplating where we can apply technology to streamline
our process, things like self check-out, which would allow us to
deploy more staff for customer service," she says. "If you aren't
spending 20 hours checking out people, you can spend more time
helping them" find what they need.
Evanston has also found inexpensive ways to provide programs by
partnering with other groups, such as Northwestern University and
the public schools. Larger library systems like Evanston also
benefit from foundations that can supplement material purchases or
summer reading programs.
Johns says she personally hopes to preserve programs for
children, since libraries can play such a key role in early
childhood development and literacy knowledge. "They grow up and not
only become library users, but more effective community members,"
Concerned library patrons can help by joining 'friends of the
library' groups, contacting local and state representatives about
library funding and signing up with www.saveillinois
libraries.com. People can also volunteer at their library,
depending on union rules. Long says even simple efforts-such as
returning books back to the proper library branch-save staff time
and fuel costs for the library.
If there is a plus side to the budget crisis, say library
employees, it may be that people are realizing the importance of
libraries as a community resource, meeting place and source of
"It's less about a personal value-we all use the library for our
own interests-but more about the public value of a library," Johns
says. "We need to stop and think: What would our community be
without a library?"
Lisa Applegate is a freelance writer and mom of one living in Chicago.
See more of Lisa's stories here.
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