Mecklenburg County (Charlotte, NC for anyone not familiar with the great state of Mecklenburg) announced last week that because of a 2 million dollar budget shortfall, 12 libraries will close and 148 people will lose their jobs. You can read the story here, and read the original post below. However, less than a week later, the decision was made to keep all branches of the library open. You can read that story here.
As I state in the original post, libraries are vital for any thriving culture. But I wonder whether just because the public showed up in support of these branches (that were left for dead by the people we trust to manage the budgets), if this was the best option. Sure, it's an emotional victory for regular people everywhere, but it might as well be a bandaid on a gaping wound. Plus, what happens in a year when the budget axe comes down again? Will the board expect to see an increase in traffic/use at these branches to justify them staying open another year? What about services? More than 80 people are still going to lose their jobs, and so the workload for all branches will be distributed across the system. Will the ardent and vocal supporters of these branches be ok with a pretty significant reduction in services? I know this is hard for some people to accept, but whether you like it or not, the idea of a library is less critical to the advancement of learning than it was at any time in history. Yes, we need them. No, they should never go away. But the sad fact is that if a middle school girl who lives in an apartment in the suburbs needs to study at her local branch in 3 years, she's going to have to take a bus downtown. Or find another way to get the information she needs. The Internet isn't going away. Sure, some people don't have access to it in their homes, but that number is probably going to decrease over time. And when it does, less and less people will use libraries as a result.
I'm happy for all the people who use the branches they were going to close and am proud of how people came together in support of this cause. A win's a win. But come talk to me in a year to let me know if this ends up being the best thing for Charlotte. If nothing else, this simply proves that we are still capable of mobilizing our muscle when we really care about something.
Original Post from 3/21/10
I'm an unaffiliated voter, so I have no political allegiance. But this isn't the kind of change I voted for in 2008. Also last week, we received even more disturbing news regarding the school system here. Because of money (80 million in the case of our schools). And I blame President Obama about as much as I blame half of the population who are so fucking angry about politics that they do nothing but complain about things without offering sincere solutions. Our money woes go back a lot farther than the current administration. But, whoever's fault it is – it doesn't change the fact that we don't have any money and we can't pay for all the stuff we could pay for a few years ago. If we trust our elected officials to govern in the best interest of society, then we have to believe that what is being cut is the best option, or rather, the least worst option, for the majority of us. However, one of the problems we obviously have to overcome is trust. And I'm afraid that one won't be solved in this blog post.
Will closing libraries and school programs hurt people? Absolutely. But the world won’t end. Yes, these are schools and libraries we’re talking about. Cornerstones of a thriving culture. And if we had more money to spend, we wouldn’t be talking about it at all. But we don’t. So we must buckle down and be better parents and stewards of culture and decide how to ensure this kind of thing doesn't happen again anytime soon.
So how is it that we just ran out of money? Well, back in our heyday (2007) our plans were for continued growth. But then the wheels came off of the financial system, and Charlotte's growth stopped along with it. And since we can't force people to move here, thus increasing tax revenues, we're left with cutting things so that government can continue to operate. We simply can't spend the same amount of money now as we did a few years ago. Have things been mismanaged? I'm sure they have. We're only human, after all. But pointing fingers right now doesn't help anyone. The real question is, what can we do?
Shortly after the library announcement last week, groups of concerned citizens formed. They have two weeks to raise the 2 million dollars needed to keep the 12 branches open and the jobs secure. As of today, the group has raised 60K, or about 3% of the total needed. I predict a vocal and valiant effort by regular (poor and middle class) people, but it would simply take a miracle for all the pennies collected from bake sales to amount to two million dollars. And the clock is ticking. Social media can help, but unless Tweets count as cash, no Twibbon in the world's going to generate the revenue needed to keep the libraries open. A local reporter even recommended that the Charlotte Bobcats new owner Michael Jordan step up and save the libraries as a way to get the community to embrace him completely. Evidently, being the best basketball player who ever lived (who also happens to be a native son of North Carolina) isn't enough for us to embrace him as the new team owner. I agree that if the Bobcats (not just Jordan) stepped up with a significant contribution, they'd be heralded as something like heroes. But I don't know if this is the right thing either. Sure, Jordan and the Bobcats (or Richardson and the Panthers for that matter – or hey, what if they worked together to solve this?) could really have a profound impact on the community by paying for these libraries to stay open for another year. But unless they're more involved with the community in general, a generous act like this might only make them appear political. And then what happens next year when the money's still not there and the community looks to an NBA team that's never posted a profit in their history, to bail us out again?
Another option would be to arrange contracts with the communities surrounding these doomed branches – so that people who live in these neighborhoods can help run the branch directly. But even this is next to impossible without hoards of single income families in each community who can afford to step up and send one adult to help manage the day-to-day operations of a library. And the last time I checked, most of these kinds of households aren't in the affected areas. Nonetheless, if a community really and truly cared about having their library branch stay open, they could certainly negotiate this kind of arrangement.
Of course we can always opt to suck it up and let these libraries close. In business, when budgets tighten, the fat is the first thing cut. If you underperform, you're gone. Of course there other times when the marketing
budgets are the first things cut, but that's a huge mistake as everyone in marketing knows (you can't attract revenue without being actively attractive). Maybe the library closings should be seen as a wake up call for gluttonous actions in the first place? Maybe they're supposed to close? Maybe we're just being too nostalgic? Besides, they're not closing every branch.
Thanks to the volume of media that most of us have streaming into our homes, offices and mobile devices today, libraries simply aren't as relevant now as they were just a decade ago. That said, we should never get used to the idea of cutting things like library and school budgets as a way to keep our society moving in a positive direction.
Right or wrong, changes must be made. And we have to trust that the people we’ve hired to manage these things for us as a society, are capable of doing their jobs and making the tough decisions. And learning from them.