Our view: Keep lights on in libraries
Budget, staff cuts will constrain gain from treasure at our fingertips
Published October 11th, 2009
Anchorage Daily News
What good is a book in the dark? What good is a computer kept behind locked doors?
Those are questions citizens of Anchorage might ask at this month’s public hearings on the 2010 city budget.
The Anchorage Public Library — Loussac and four branches, with a fifth in Mountain View due to open next year — stands to lose 14 staff positions, along with cuts in its materials budget ($100,000) and capital money ($30,000). If this proposal stands, the library will have taken almost a 10 percent hit in a year, according to library director Karen Keller.
What it means is shorter hours or more days when the doors are locked, fewer books, movies and CDs to borrow, less public access to the Internet and less time for public meetings.
Yes, we’ll save money in 2010. But we’ll also diminish the value of an institution in which we’ve already invested multiple millions of dollars, and which always gives a good return on our money.
Summer saw painful cuts
We’ve just restored a seven-day week for the Loussac Library and five-day-a-week service at the branches after a summer of staff furloughs that sharply cut back service. For 2010, the branches are looking at four-day weeks again. Loussac will stay open seven days — but with only four hours on Sundays.
Mayor Dan Sullivan’s budget for 2010 increases taxes by $6 million but cuts spending and city services while trying to maintain public safety and street maintenance at current levels. State revenue sharing that in past years provided property-tax relief will shore up the budget. And the mayor doesn’t want to tax to the legal cap — his budget is about $10 million below that — in this uncertain economy.
“I understand the situation the city is in,” Keller said.
But here’s the rub — actually, several rubs.
Community support is strong
The Anchorage Public Library has wide support in the community — the library draws more visitors in a year than the total attendance of every event in the Sullivan Arena. Since 2006, Keller said, the library has raised more than $14 million in donations and other non-city sources. Friends of the Library carries the summer reading program and other services, and the Anchorage Library Foundation provides ongoing financial support.
Yet the city has continually targeted the library for cuts.
As staff is cut, hours of operation are shorter and those collections enhanced by private donors are less accessible.
And once cut, staff and materials budgets aren’t likely to bounce back. “Historically, we haven’t been able to gain much ground,” Keller said.
Bill Wilson, a national library consultant here this week to help with long-range library planning, said the Anchorage library already is short-staffed compared to the average of libraries serving similar-sized cities.
Importance grows in hard times
Continually shortchanging the library shortchanges the entire community.
Institutions like the library become more, not less, important in hard times. Maybe you can’t buy that book, but you can borrow it. And it reads just as well. Or maybe you can’t afford to look up material on a database that charges for access — but the library provides that database. Maybe you can’t afford a computer, but you can still bridge the “digital divide” at the library and do a job resume or send an e-mail.
Libraries are social and civic centers for the city — from the Assembly chambers in the Loussac to lectures, plays, community forums and readings at the branches. Libraries all over the United States have become “third places,” after home and work or school.
Safe places. Places to learn and get productively and wonderfully lost. Lose track of time in the library and chances are it’s time well spent. Here’s a community institution that offers no end of paths to progress.
Look at the Loussac and its four branches. Name five other buildings in town where anyone in the community can find so much knowledge, beauty, enchantment, hope, entertainment, democracy and opportunity free for the asking — a universe, with a support staff to boot.
The mayor and Assembly need to think twice about such unkind cuts. Like Keller, we understand the situation. If these were temporary cuts, like this summer’s, the community could take them in stride. But if the cuts outlast the current economy, if a constricted library becomes the norm, that will leave us poorer for keeps.
BOTTOM LINE: Let’s look for ways to keep our libraries open, rather than just take the cuts.