Many commentators are indicating that the United States is in the worst economic decline since the depression of the 1930’s. As one looks at the local government financial picture this viewpoint is confirmed.
Public libraries are a service of local government. Depending upon where they are located, and how they have interacted with and served their user communities, public libraries are viewed as an essential government service, something that is nice but not essential, or a frill that can be dropped without concern for the community’s health.
My personal career aside, I view public libraries as an essential service of government. Without public libraries, individuals from every Socioeconomic category would lack a place where information representing all viewpoints is confidentially available without further cost. Using the information obtained in, or through, their public library individuals are then able to make their own decisions on what to believe and what to act upon. Access to information from all viewpoints free of doctrinal pressure or influence is necessary for a democratic society to function and grow.
In these hard economic times public library use is increasing dramatically. As mentioned in earlier blogs, individuals without home computer access are coming in to file unemployment applications and apply for jobs. People are coming in increasing numbers to find materials to help them endure the tasks of daily living. Some individuals just want a warm, or cool, place to pass the day or a friendly voice to listen to their life story (another public library service often overlooked). Public libraries are also community centers where communal learning and social networking takes place on a daily basis.
Yet, many localities are in the process of decimating their public libraries. In Virginia the strongest example of this trend is Fairfax County Public Library where the FY11 budget proposal for the Fairfax County Public Library includes a reduction of 81 positions and a fiscal reduction of $3,400,000. If approved, this budget will be 33 % less than the budget of FY09. In addition to the drastic staffing cuts, fourteen community libraries will be open 47 hours a week and 8 regional libraries will be open 51 hours a week. Disabled customers will no longer be able to order library books for home delivery and 35 deposit sites at senior living facilities, nursing homes and adult day care centers will no longer receive rotating collections of library books.
In a time of economic recession/depression all institutions must share in the pain. However, in many communities throughout America it is obvious that public libraries are being asked to shoulder more of the pain than other governmental services.
Has the country’s economic condition hit bottom? It depends upon where you live and which economic guru you talk to. In any case, once bottom is reached, local government fiscal health takes two or three years to begin to recover. This is longer than the general economy and is due to a variety of factors including revenue resources that take longer to reflect recovery than in the private sector.
What does this mean for public libraries? My prediction is several more years of severe financial pain that will include further decreases in staffing levels, the ability to purchase current materials for public use, and increasing pressure on service hours.
So long for now!