Closed Libraries Leave A Legacy

Library closures and budget sacrifices leave a legacy. In the recession of 2002 and 2003 our library system was closed for two weeks in each of those years and library hours were cut.  Remember when Central was open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m?  Hours at branch libraries were significantly reduced in that recession, with most libraries narrowing operations significantly to, for instance, 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday. Recognize those hours? We’re still living with them.

This coming week the library system will close for the third time in the last eight years. When the Library and all its brick and mortar and online services shut down on Monday, Seattle library users will begin to feel the  budget cuts of April 09. This library closure, from August 31- Sept 7, is  the visible impact of even deeper cuts. There was also a 66% cut in the Library’s Capital budget. There are no scheduled cuts to existing day to day hours other than this week’s closure and collections funding is unchanged.

Media response to the budget reduction in April varied, but much of it was casual.  In a Friday editorial in The Seattle Times, editors reasoned that a reduction in library services was a consequence to be expected and they called on the mayor to cut hours to libraries in a “sensible manner.” Then, in response to the April 17 budget adjustments, the Times wrote in Reprieve For Seattle Public Library Users that the mayor got it right…the shuttering of our library for a week is the least painful way for the library to meet its obligatory cuts.   What do you think readers? Have we become so used to libraries being cut in recessions that the discussion has moved from why we’re reducing the budgets of core services like libraries to how we should reduce their budgets in hard times?

Many people rely on libraries. Libraries are a critical daily service. That level of need is articulated by a Lake City patron that said to us, “The last thing you ought to be doing is closing libraries. Close the Library for a week? People use the library. I use the Library every day. Closing the library has a big time effect on me.” Closed libraries create hardships for individuals and families. Can you imagine going without a computer for a week during a job search? I can’t, yet that’s what many people have to do this week.  Nearly 12 million people visited Seattle libraries last year. Do the math and you realize that roughly 230,000 people a week use the Library. This isn’t a casual closure of a inessential service, this is a major interruption of the most comprehensive free public resource in Seattle.

At the City Hall Examiner, Keith Vance said, “The way it (the revised budget) shakes out is that the deepest cuts will be felt in transportation, parks and libraries.”  Libraries took the heavy hit with REET fund deductions on April 13 as well.  Preservation of day to day Library hours and collections dollars is a relief, yes, absolutely, but can we protect our investment in these new and renovated libraries by cutting the Capital budget by 66%? Can we say we love our libraries but not mind that they’re asked to close for a week? Can we take pride in our civic vision of a new library system while accepting library funding as a necessary sacrifice in bad economic climates?

To be a civic amenity, our libraries have to be open and accessible. To meet our vision of a public good they need sustained capital and operations funding.  To be excellent they need private investment and strong community support. We can settle for less in hard economic times but each concession we make as a community compromises the power of our investment and weakens our expectation. Please be a voice for the continued preservation of library funds.