Our view: Don’t close that book
Anchorage libraries look past the current budget squeeze
Published: September 9th, 2009
Anchorage Daily News
These are hard times for Anchorage libraries. More to the point, these are hard times for Anchorage library users.
Hours were cut to account for unpaid furloughs this summer. Loussac Library and its branches from Girdwood to Eagle River have only been open four days a week.
And those are cuts in a staff that already runs bare bones, according to a preliminary study by the library consulting firm Himmel and Wilson, with help from local firm Agnew::Beck.
Some of their findings, comparing Anchorage with 35 library systems serving similar populations across the United States, are disheartening.
Anchorage has less staff (86 versus an average of 143), spends less of its budgets on materials and services (8.6 percent versus 12.8 percent), more of its budget on overhead and intergovernmental charges (36.5 percent versus 20.9 percent). Those overhead charges cover everything from IT support and payroll to groundskeeping and horticulture.
Our libraries don’t have enough Internet computers, lack bandwidth and get fewer visits per registered borrower (5.1 versus 8.9 in comparable systems). That’s in part because in our spread-out city we have fewer branches (4) than the comparable average (8 to 9). We have to go farther to check out a book.
But before anyone’s tempted to close the book and turn out the lights, there’s good news too.
Sixty percent of Anchorage residents hold current library cards. That’s more than the comparable average of 55 percent. Our libraries recorded 871,036 visits in 2008 — more than the total attendance for every event at the Sullivan Arena in 2008. Our main library — Loussac — at East 36th Avenue and Denali Street has a central location and both good bus service and ample parking. It’s accessible.
City library director Karen Keller points out that since 2006, Anchorage Public Library has raised $14 million in funds from private, state and bond sources. Still, with a hiring freeze, she’s struggling to maintain a post-furlough schedule that will have Loussac open every day and the branches open five days a week.
“We have been surviving,” she said Tuesday. “I would really like to thrive.”
Bill Wilson of Himmel and Wilson said our libraries have been about as innovative and productive as they can be with a budget that keeps getting tighter.
He pointed out two ways to strengthen our libraries and help them better serve residents.
One is to examine the burgeoning intergovernmental costs that are eating such a huge share of the library’s budget. Keller notes she has no control over those costs. When she gets an increased bill from Parks and Rec to cover flower plantings and groundskeeping, she doesn’t get a corresponding budget boost. The library eats it, and its collection suffers. If there’s a cheaper way to tend the grounds, we should try it.
A second is to find ways to make the libraries more a center of community life in Anchorage.
That’s an encouraging challenge, because Anchorage already does a great deal on that score. Loussac Library is home to the Anchorage Assembly, and the Wilda Marston Theater serves as both stage and political forum. Loussac borders the increasingly popular Cuddy Midtown Park, which is becoming a community gathering place as well.
Libraries open a wealth of knowledge to everyone in the community. Let’s plan for thriving libraries.
BOTTOM LINE: The value of our city libraries will long outlast our current budget woes. Everyone is invited to participate in the Anchorage 21st Century Libraries project at www.anchorage21stcenturylibraries.org