Four years after the 20o8 economic downturn slashed library budgets all over the country, the Pew Charitable Trust has taken stock of the library landscape since emerged. Remarkably, it reports that in the middle of the recession voters in three cities studied--Columbus, OH, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh-- approved ballots for dedicated funding for libraries by large majorities. Seattle voters may face a similar ballot issue this year. Should Boston be next? The Pew study, The Library in the City: Changing Demands and a Challenging Future, points out what many observes already suspected, namely that the number of social services discontinued in the last decades by government and non-profit agencies has been bestowed on libraries by default. The report calls this "the shadow mandate." An unfunded mandate, to be sure. Library budgets are called on to provide Internet access, job applications, income-tax assistance, health information, government services and benefits, help for the homeless, after-school programs, tests for GED, safe havens for children, welcoming spaces for teenagers, ESL classes for immigrants, literacy workshops, arts and literary events and, oh, yes, circulation of books and DVDs. Yet none of the agencies unloading their services onto libraries deposit money in library operating budgets. That libraries might want to explore opportunities for grants and funding from such organizations --schools, agencies in public health, social services and workforce development-- is one of the suggestions made in the Pew report.
The Library in the City studied 15 systems, including those in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, Queens, Brooklyn, Charlotte, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Columbus, OH, and San Francisco. It focused on the Free Library in Philadelphia, which it then compared to the fortunes of the fourteen others. The report describes an overwhelmingly underfunded sector of the nation's public economy at a moment in time when the need for library services is as high as it has ever been. One figure in the report shows how the Philadelphia Free Library 's offerings, for example, supports no less than 15 government and non-profit agencies, ranging from schools to public health agencies to homeless services, while its operating budget sustained a 19 percent funding cut between 2008 and 2010, a 12 percent reduction in hours, and a 14 percent loss in full-time staff. Boston's library system, and all the others in the report, can easily claim a similar range of social services, and a similarly unfunded mandate for it. Boston's budget during those years was cut by 10 percent, its hours reduced by 3 percent and full-time staff positions decreased by nine percent. Current funding has stabilized at about $40 million, but not increased. San Francisco was the only municipality that expanded its library budget by 5 percent, all the more remarkable because it receives virtually no state or federal funding for its operations.
The need for sustainable library funding couldn't be made more clear in this well-written report, generously illustrated with snappy graphs, charts and photographs. It describes how in Pittsburgh, a library task force looked at almost two dozen funding strategies and recommended six. These included a new endowment campaign, actively cultivating community support, and proposing state and local tax incentives for library contributions. Another recommendation was acted on: a public referendum to raise property taxes to directly support the library. It was approved overwhelmingly last year.
The details of the various ballot measures to raise specific library funds differed but were similar in their results: keeping libraries open and perhaps even thriving, and making sure political support for libraries was articulated. Philadelphia's Mayor, Michael Nutter, has said repeatedly that his attempts in 2008 to close 11 out of 49 branches was "the biggest mistake" he made as that city's leader, according to the Pew report. It also mentions Mayor Thomas Menino's travail of being called a hypocrite for billing himself as "the education mayor" and then trying to eliminate libraries in Boston.
Voters in Columbus, OH, increased their library tax for the first time in 24 years by an almost 2 to 1 margin, raising about $31 million. In Los Angeles, both the mayor and the entire city council supported a measure to dedicate a portion of property tax revenue to libraries in 2011, expected to produce about $50 million annually. LA voters approved it by 63 percent. That same year, Pittsburgh's taxpayers supported a new property tax to add an estimated $3.25 million to the library budget each year, by a remarkable 72 percent.
Pittsburgh city councilman and library trustee Patrick Dowd bucked those who said the measure would have no chance of succeeding. " There's a fundamental love of this institution because you have people who work in the neighborhood and are connected to people who go into the branch. The librarians are the people who get you the books, find a safe space for your kids. You know them," Dowd said. " You just don't have that connection with your garbage collector."