America’s libraries are stretching their resources to their limit in the face of extraordinary budgetary challenges. This is especially true of the Dallas public library system, which has made the most of its dwindling funds. In this opinion piece, ALA President Molly Raphael urges Dallas officials to support their public library system. From Jan. 20-24, the American Library Association is holding its Midwinter Meeting in Dallas.
By Molly Raphael
The recession has forced Americans to seek creative ways to stretch our dwindling dollars.
The situation is no different for libraries, which have been affected by funding cuts all across the country. A majority (60 percent) of libraries report flat or decreased operating budgets in FY2011; and 17 state library agencies (34 percent) report they were aware of public library closures in their states in 2010.
Yet the demand for library service continues to increase significantly, as thousands flock to libraries everyday for essential services such as free access to computers, job-seeking and small business resources, literacy programs, lifelong learning, and much more.
Staggering budget cuts have placed libraries in Dallas and nationally in precarious positions. They have responded with determination to maintain their mission and core services to the public, despite shrinking resources. As Corinne Hill, interim director of Dallas Public Library (DPL), said in 2009 media interview, “We will continue to provide excellent customer service to the citizens of Dallas. And we will remain relevant in our communities. We are bigger than our budget.”
Since that time, DPL continues to weather a financial storm that has swept away half of its funding and staff. From 2007 to 2011, the city of Dallas slashed its library support from $32.3 million to just under $19.6 million. Over this five-year period, the library has lost nearly 40 percent of its budget resulting in the loss of more than 80 positions, requiring reductions in open hours and the purchasing of books and other resources.
Despite deep cuts, Dallas Public Library continues to support the community. Last year alone the library received more than 5 million visitors and circulated more than 8.2 million items. Visitors took advantage of free programs ranging from computer and job skills training and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, to financial literacy including such topics as budgeting and retirement savings. Patrons benefited from everything from free tax help to family literacy programs and assistance with digital downloads.
Through innovation and creative financial solutions, the library system has managed to survive, but its ability to keep its head above water should not lead to further cuts. Additional cuts will hinder the system’s mission to link resources and customers to support lifelong learning and enhance lives.
Even though it has worked hard to re-adjust its bookmobile schedule to provide a library presence on Mondays, we must ask, “How can the library fulfill its mission if all but three of its 27 branches are closed on Monday, and only two branches are open on Sundays?”
Such a reduction in hours means thousands of lost opportunities to connect patrons with needed resources and services. Not only is access to materials limited, but the size of the library’s collection is dwindling as the library struggles to find funding to replace worn materials. New titles are becoming dearer, and patrons must add their name to long waiting lists to borrow new books or other items.
Now, once again local leaders are considering the upcoming budget. The library has shown it is committed to streamlining operations and meeting financial challenges with innovation and collaboration, but a library’s resources and creativity can be stretched only so far.
Dallas Public Library needs our support. As local leaders work to develop a budget, we ask that they see libraries as part of the solution and restore funding. We must not turn a blind eye as Dallas leaders shelve the value of library service. Our communities must stand up for their libraries.
Molly Raphael, is the president of the American Library Association (ALA), the oldest and largest library association in the world. Its mission is to promote the highest quality library and information services and public access to information for all. Raphael will join more than 10,000 librarians, publishers, authors and guests for the ALA Midwinter Meeting taking place from Jan. 20 – 24 at the Dallas Convention Center.