Across the Country, Libraries Face a Budget Crunch


June Knudson wasn't born and raised in Oregon's Hood River County, but for the last 35 years she's made sure that her fellow residents there have a place to check out books. Knudson is the Director of the Hood River County Library, with three branches servicing an overall population of about 10,000 people. The flagship branch is just two years away from its centenary and was one of the first libraries funded by Andrew Carnegie.

But Hood River County, barring a true miracle, won't make it to the 100 year mark. On July 1, all three of the library's branches will close their doors, a decision that came about after 59% of the town's nearly 11,000 registered voters rejected the formation of a special taxing district that would have kept them open.The last day to check out books is June 19. The three Internet terminals will go dark, leaving thousands of people - as well as those who log in to the library's Wi-Fi network with their laptops - without public access to the Web. And for the next few weeks, Knudson will spend her time and energy confirming her patrons' worst fears, doing her best to explain why a perfect storm of budget cuts, income tax freezes and economic crises will leave the county the only one in Oregon without a functioning library system.

"I built this library. I believe this community has a persona, that I believe includes a [library] service," Knudson said in a recent telephone interview with DailyFinance. Everyone she's talked to today "has been in shock, quiet-mouthed. They want answers. They want to know what's going on and why."

The answer, in Hood River County's case, has a lot to do with Oregon's Measure 50, passed in 1997, which froze tax rates for municipal government units from school districts to utilities. A uniform taxation rate works fine when the economy's healthy, and Hood River County residents enjoyed one of the lowest taxation rates in the state. But when that is decidedly not the case -- as it's been since 2008 -- budgets move further and further into the red. The local government has slashed $2 million, or 20%, of its total budget, and the library, having already withstood $500,000 in cuts and several staff layoffs, was now asked to cut another $1.5 million. Naturally, as Knudson said, the cuts hurt. "We're hitting the wall."

Libraries Affected Everywhere

Hood River County's woes are reflective of what many libraries around the country face. On June 5, the city of Los Angeles finalized its annual budget, which will reduce funding to the Los Angeles Public Library by 11% , including the layoffs of over 100 workers and the closure of many branches around the city, if all the proposed cuts are implemented. New York City faces just as drastic a situation, if not more so. The executive budget from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which would begin on July 1, proposes a 30% reduction in funds to libraries around the city, including $37 million in cuts for the New York Public Library, and $20.6 million and $16.9 million for the Brooklyn and Queens Public Library, respectively.

The latter plan is a particularly bitter pill to swallow since the Queens Public Library, the largest circulating library in the country, was also voted "Library of the Year" in 2009 by Library Journal. But about a month from now, the New York Times reported, the Queens library network may have to close 14 of its 51 community branches, halve its total hours of service and lay off 412 employees -- more than one-third of its staff. Only one library branch would remain open for the full seven-day week.

The biggest cities face the steepest cuts, but the news hardly stops there. The city of Des Moines wants to eliminate its public library system's Saturday hours and cut back on hours for the rest of the week as part of a plan to make up a half a million dollar shortfall. New Jersey is looking to cut $10.4 million, or 74% of state government funding to libraries, both circulating branches and those in schools - whose own budgets are also expected to be slashed almost completely. And drastic cuts already in effect in Dallas hasn't removed its library system from the budget chopping block, not when there's still a $130 million budget gap to make up for.

For Marilyn Johnson, author of This Book is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, nationwide cuts like these are appalling. "These are cuts to the bone," she said in an e-mail message. "We will not have an informed democracy and we will not be able to compete in an increasingly computerized world without libraries. On our watch, we are throwing away a crucial structural component of our civilization. It's devastating news to all of us."

Making Hard Choices

With so much at stake, there are various movements afoot to make clear to municipal and state governments why cutting library funding is a catastrophic move. Both New York and Los Angeles residents have launched postcard campaigns, and a 24-hour "We Will Not Be Shushed Read-In" will take place at Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza between June 12 and 13.

"School libraries and public libraries are continually at risk during poor economic times," said Jill O'Neill, Director of Planning & Communication for the National Federation of Advanced Information Services. "Because there are always citizens and bureaucrats who feel that the library is not spending money appropriately or who want to fund what they see as other more critical priorities. Do we pay into the educators' pension fund or do we increase the library's materials budget? How much will real estate values suffer if we don't have a library in town?"

Such financial triage means that there will be hard choices made by both librarians and the governments supporting them. But both sides can benefit from additional knowledge about the other, said Jessamyn West, a Vermont-based library technologist and a moderator of the community weblog "Libraries need to be vocal in how painful the cuts are going to be without being all, 'the sky is falling,' about it and making sure that the impact of the cuts is spread around. Librarians shouldn't just work harder and suck it up, they should actually cut things that are patron-facing as well as trimming budgets. They should actively educate their communities about why the budget cuts are happening, not just fund raise to make up the difference."

By the same token, said West, "governments need to know that cutting libraries is in many ways cutting education. And you reap what you sow when you decide to go this route. A less-educated population is less able to make their own decisions and self-direct their own lives which can translate without too much hand-waving into a population that has more need for other costly government services, not less."

As for June Knudson, the budget situation has hardened into reality, but hasn't diminished her. The Hood River County Library may not be able to avoid its July 1 closure date, and she is being forced to retire, but with local and state elections coming up in November, Knudson's campaign for additional funding has renewed purpose. "I'm an optimist," Knudson told DailyFinance. "We're certainly in a jam, but we'll figure our way out of it."

This article has been modified since its original publication to correct the title of Jill O'Neill, she is the Director of Planning & Communication for the National Federation of Advanced Information Sciences, not the National Foundation for the Advancement of Information Science.