Posted: Wednesday, October 7, 2009 - 14:30
By Grant Oliphant
Two of the lessons that life teaches most of us are that decisions have consequences and that you can only stretch a dollar so far. I was reminded of those lessons by today's terrible news that funding shortfalls are forcing the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to close several branches, merge others, and make major cuts in service, hours and personnel.
Years ago this community made a responsible choice to support the libraries through the regional sales tax that funds the Allegheny Regional Asset District. That choice was followed by another decision to use a significant portion of the RAD's resources to support debt service for the regional destinations on the North Shore. I favored the stadiums then and would again, but let's not kid ourselves about the choice we made: Unless the RAD continued to grow year after year, funding for core assets like the Library would remain flat or go down.
As it turns out, that's precisely what has happened. That would be fine if the Library's costs didn't have the nasty habit of going up every year, but since the Library lives on the same planet as the rest of us do, it has been dealing with the same escalating prices and aging infrastructure we all have experienced. And to add new insult to old injury, the same economy that is flattening RAD's resources also diminishes the money available to the Library from the state, foundations, corporations and individual donors.
Thus far, it has managed to cope with this squeeze by trimming expenses wherever possible, but at some point any reasonable person could see that the Library was eventually going to have to start cutting services, as it now has. Blaming this on the Library's leadership and board would be childish, since the Library is only doing what every other responsible nonprofit in our community is doing during these difficult times: making tough choices to keep afloat and save the institution for the long haul. That's a sign of adult behavior, and frankly, we could use more of it.
At the same time, though, these closures cut deep. No matter how much we might pretend otherwise, nonprofits are not businesses and cannot be run on identical principles. It's true that a system that once served 600,000 people now serves a population half that size. But trimming "excess capacity" is nowhere near as simple for a nonprofit like the Library as it is for a business to close an underperforming subsidiary.
Many people mistakenly believe that libraries are no longer relevant in the age of the Internet and virtual everything. Just the opposite is true. Library usage continues to climb, especially in these difficult economic times. By normal usage measures, the Library should be booming, except that it's a free service and a social good. As a consequence it enjoys an inverse relationship with the market: Rising demand likely means, as it does in this case, diminished resources.
In many poorer communities, libraries are often the only place people can go to find a computer, access job sites, and research work opportunities. In places like Hazelwood, libraries aren't just about the books-they are about the community itself, a kind of anchor providing a safe haven and community meeting place. In Chicago, which places a very different value on its libraries, the city uses libraries as a launching point for community revitalization.
If we really care about the future of our libraries, here's what we need to do:
(1) Avoid the finger-pointing and blame-mongering. Past choices and bad economic luck are the culprits here. What matters now are the decisions we make going forward. The city, the county and the Library all need to work together, not shift blame.
(2) Acknowledge the economic and financial realities we find ourselves in. The state, the county, the city and the library are all struggling with deficits. Let's not pretend someone else can come up with money they clearly don't have. There are no "magic dollars" to be found anymore.
(3) Get serious about finding a more sustainable model to fund the libraries in the future - and ideally, if we can stretch our dollars that far, to keep as many of these branches open as possible. The RAND Corp. predicted this problem in its study of the Library's funding, which is less than library funding in comparable cities like Cleveland. We, and by we I mean the public and private sector along with representatives of local communities, should work together to identify new funding models or ways to tweak the one we've got.
There may be no easy answers to the Library's dilemma. We may have to live with these cuts and others beyond them; or we may have to live with finding new sources of revenue. Either way, a dollar only goes so far, so deciding how to spend it is a choice we all need to make.