Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Every year there comes a moment where librarians and library allies pull on the sackcloth and take to the streets to wail to the heavens that “The End [of that particular city’s libraries] is Nigh!” These mournful declarations come, generally, as a result of budget announcements that include cuts for libraries on a scale ranging from vicious to devastating. It has become an annual occurrence for libraries, just as dependable as conferences, Summer Reading, and no promotions.
Indeed this cycle has taken on a sort of absurd repetition: the city (or town) proposes deep cuts, librarians and allies launch a desperate campaign to combat the cuts, the final budget comes through with either lesser cuts or no cuts, librarians and their allies breathe a sigh of relief for a few months, rinse and repeat. And as goes with annual cycles of this sort it seems that we are reaching the declining action of it, at least for New York City. As was reported in the Wall Street Journal (“NYC Mayor, Council Agree on $70B Budget Plan”):
“The agreement also increases funding for the city’s library system, which will allow for, on average, more than five days of service throughout the system.“
To appreciate what this truly means it is worthwhile to revisit the warning sounded by Tom Galante, President and CEO of Queens Library, regarding the original looming cuts (these comments were made in testimony on March 8, 2013 [we previously wrote about it here]):
“this year’s City budget proposal is the largest reduction NYC libraries have ever faced: A 35% reduction below current funding, or $106.7 million.”
So this is great news! Right? Well, it’s not bad news, and for libraries that’s pretty good. A 35% cut was expected and it now looks like this cut will be avoided entirely, and that there might even be a bit of extra funding. But before we celebrate the extra funding too much it is important to recall another thing Galante had said in testimony, namely that the city’s libraries:
“are currently funded at minus 18%, or over $57 million below our 2008 funding levels. Our ability to purchase new materials has been crippled…the library workforce in this city is down 19%…”
Thus this good news is still not getting NYC libraries back to where they were (funding/staffing wise) in 2008, but again, this is far better news than many expected and there’s something to be said for that. Generally the cuts are announced, protested, and what actually goes through is just a lesser cut, it’s very odd to see that in the face of massive cuts that there will actually be more (yes, more) funding available for libraries.
Granted there is no reason to think, looking at this budget deal, that the cycle of threatening library cuts has reached its end. Such is rather obvious in the WSJ article about the budget deal (a deal that does not raise taxes mind you) which notes that some of the extra money has been generated through the sale of new taxi permits, and furthermore missing from the budget is money that may be owed to various municipal employees (which one would imagine includes librarians) for “retroactive raises.” It is nice of Mayor Bloomberg to end his term with a budget that doesn’t kick too many people in the gut, but it seems that this budget will instead just kick the budget problems to the next Mayor. Who may praise libraries on the campaign trail, but once in office…well…we’ll see.
The larger point being that it is okay to be pleased with how libraries have done in this outing, but it is essential to bear in mind that nothing has really changed to protect the long-term future of libraries. So long as libraries and other essential public services are treated as bargaining chips in budgetary wrangling one can be certain that their stability will be continually chipped away.
This wary stasis, still for NYC, is visible in the recent Library Journal headline “Brooklyn’s First Carnegie Branch Gets a Reprieve, but Fate Remains Murky” which details how a BPL library has been temporarily spared from sale and destruction, though the key word there is likely “temporarily” (more on sale and demolition of libraries). A delay or reprieve is not a sustainable solution.
Furthermore it is essential to remain aware that the attack on public libraries goes beyond a single state, and while the libraries in one municipality may be faring reasonably well at one moment the libraries elsewhere may be experiencing a crushing assault. Consider another Library Journal article of late, titled “Oklahoma: Tulsa Library Budget for 2013-2014 Cuts More Than $1 Million.” While that amount may seem rather small in comparison to the cuts sustained by other systems in its context it is just as potentially crippling.
It is against this backdrop of constant cuts, periodic reprieves, and fears of more cuts, that thousands of librarians will be gathering in Chicago (from June 27-July 2, 2013) for the American Library Association’s annual conference. Librarians will mingle and cavort, sharing tips and listening to talks about the future of libraries, but insofar as the conference (with the non-confrontational title “Transforming Our Libraries, Ourselves”) doesn’t create a fighting movement of librarians one can rest assured that the future of libraries will surely involve more threatened cuts, more desperate protest, and more installments of this long running cycle.
It would be great if what the ALA title meant was “transforming our libraries, ourselves” into fierce combatants. But I rather doubt that.
So, same time next year? You bring the “End is Nigh” sign, I’ll bring the leaflets.