Our public libraries are getting smaller. Visits to public libraries are down, print collections are down, and even computer use is down in most states. Many state and local governments are still recovering from the financial crisis, and any increase in expenditures usually goes to schools and police departments. As a result, library budgets are flat or down in many jurisdictions.
In this area, Anne Arundel County library staff went seven years without a raise. A citizens group in Fairfax County claims the budget there has been cut by 27 percent. Prince George’s County’s 2016 library budget is about the same as it was in 2010, but deft financial management has allowed for modest salary increases over the years.
With print collections and budgets down, more libraries may be the answer — but smaller ones.
Librarians long have known that most people live within a few miles of the library they regularly use. No one drives 20 miles to borrow a book. Instead of large, regional mega-libraries, local governments should plan for smaller, community-based facilities that reflect the needs of local neighborhoods.
Public libraries should also consider locating in larger community centers; the Deanwood Neighborhood Library in the District is an example of both concepts. Situated inside the Deanwood Community Center, a facility that contains a gym, swimming pool, multipurpose room and senior center, the library occupies a small portion of the building but benefits from the large number of residents who come to the center for other purposes. Instead of occupying a stand-alone facility that would require a special trip, the Deanwood Neighborhood Library is at the center of the action. The branch might otherwise have been hard-pressed to justify operating expenses, such as maintenance, electricity and security; sharing the building with a community center allows librarians to reduce costs and concentrate on their core mission.
Storefront libraries, once found in many communities, fell out of favor when governments began promoting larger libraries with more facilities.
The Mount Rainier Library is a living example of a vibrant, active storefront library. Located at a busy intersection with no parking, the branch serves pedestrians in a community where many residents walk to the bus stop or local stores and children pass by on their way to and from school. The branch offers weekly story times for young children and a crocheting workshop several times a month for older adults. Open five days a week, the library employs one full-time librarian and three part-time clerical assistants. Residents — and taxpayers — get a lot of bang for their buck at this branch.
Several years ago, I worked in a community-based library that employed three full-time staff members and one part-timer. We recorded between 200 and 300 visitors a day, and we knew many of our customers by name. When they arrived at the checkout desk with books, we pulled up their library accounts and checked them out without asking for library cards or identification.
Politicians may like building big, regional libraries that stand as monuments to their communities. A big construction project means jobs, photo opportunities and a ribbon-cutting ceremony on opening day. But library statistics in many jurisdictions show the same level of use in smaller branches that are closer to the communities they serve, easier to use and more inviting than larger, impersonal libraries.
With more and more activity going online and interpersonal relationships becoming more remote, a library where everybody knows your name is hard to beat.
The writer is a librarian.
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