Library Closures and Their Impact on the Community

Aug 01, 2007

Library closures are something most library staff (and patrons) dread, and yet each year communities large and small face the threat of having their public library shut down. Could it happen in your town, and, if so, what impact might it have?

Closures -- the one word guaranteed to strike dread into a library worker's -- or patron's -- heart. It doesn't seem like the kind of thing that could happen where you live, does it? After all, the public library is always busy, drawing a great crowd for special programs and children's storytimes, and you should have seen the line as the checkout desk when the new Harry Potter came out! And yet...library closures are insidious things. They sneak in where you least expect them.

Perhaps the budget cuts first make themselves felt in a lack of books -- the latest bestsellers are slow to arrive, some don't arrive at all. Older books wear out and are not replaced. All the magazines seem to be a year or two old -- could the subscriptions have lapsed? Staff cuts may well follow -- when staff members retire or move on they may not be replaced, and full time positions may become part time ones.

When the numbers of staff decrease, can reduced hours be far behind? Many library systems, even major ones, are cutting back on or eliminating weekend and evening hours. The New York, Seattle, and Vancouver public library systems are among the major ones who have reduced their operating hours as a budget-cutting measure.

One method thankfully not adopted by most major library systems (at least not yet) is that of periodic shutdowns -- closing the main branch for a week or two at a time, several times a year, in order to reduce operating expenses. This has happened, however, most notably in Seattle, where the main library experienced several such closures in 2002-2003.

Another, more subtle, method is that of closing libraries for 'repairs and renovations' - renovations that may never happen. Just ask Washington, DC residents living in the Anacostia, Benning, Shaw, and Tenley neighborhoods -- their neighborhood libraries closed their doors on January 1, 2005, supposedly so that newer, better libraries could be constructed -- to date, some 2 1/2 years later, there is no sign of any new construction.

When it comes to closure horror stories, though, none can top that of Jackson County, Oregon, a library system with some 100,000 cardholders and where close to 1.5 million items are checked out per year. On April 7, 2007, every one of Jackson County's fifteen libraries shut their doors when cuts in federal subsidies led to an 80% drop in library funding. As there is no other source of funding, there is no plan to reopen any of the libraries at this time. For a short while the library system maintained a blog on its website which kept former patrons up to date with efforts to save the library system, (even featuring an open letter from author Gary Paulsen), but in mid-May even the blog had shut down because there was no-one left to moderate. We sincerely hope this is because all of the 100 or so former library staffers have moved on to find new jobs in other library systems, but we fear this may not be the case.

Is there no end in sight? Does every library system run the risk of going the way of Jackson County's? Maybe...but not if the county or local government agencies funding them really do the math. The libraries have been closed down as a cost-cutting measure, true, but it could well prove that the negative economic impact of the closures actually outweighs the savings realized. Merchants in Medford, Oregon, where Jackson County's main branch was located, have been particularly vocal in criticizing the sharp drop in business that the closure of their library has brought about. One coffee shop that had been sharing space with the library may have to close its doors for good -- business has dropped off a steep 73% since the library closed its doors last April. Once word gets out as to how library closures actually hit communities right in the pocketbook, perhaps those communities will work a bit harder at coming up with the necessary funding and/or making budget cutbacks in other areas. (Reduced salaries for county council members, perhaps?)

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