by Courtney Butler, Head Editor, INALJ Idaho
Without naming any names, let’s just say I recently visited several libraries in several different geographical regions, and the discrepancy in quality between the institutions got me thinking about library funding strategies. Why has it been deemed acceptable for large, rich communities to have state of the art libraries while small, poor communities are lucky to get by with marginal resources? There is a lot of focus on the aggregate decline of library budgets in the economic downswing, but I think there should be more discussion on the persistent inequalities in funding between districts. I have been and remain a firm believer that the current distribution of library resources is unfair, and I’m always open to thoughts on how to rectify this situation.
One interesting solution that I’ve come across was in an article published in Library Journal in 2004. In “The Case for Consolidation”, Sam Amdursky argues that public libraries need to gain economic independence from local governing bodies by forming their own tax districts and by consolidating into larger, regional units. Especially in tough economic times, a dedicated revenue stream would help combat the general inconsistency of available funding for libraries and the radical fluctuation of tax revenue received throughout a state. He believes the current system creates a lot of redundancies and inefficiencies by serving overlapping populations and that consolidation would help eliminate these inefficiencies and assist in tailoring programs to better suit community needs.
Honestly, the first time I read this article it seemed full of problems. I was overwhelmed by the very idea of this sort of transition and by concerns about maintaining adequate service and public approval. However, I was surprised to find a number of libraries all over the country either implementing this sort of system or seriously considering doing so. As such, I took a second look. From a funding perspective, the benefits are obvious. Libraries are too dependent on the whims of elected officials who are more concerned with maintaining the general budget of whichever constituencies they serve than ensuring library services are not compromised. As long as public libraries could convince the public to weather the change, independent governing bodies and taxing districts with only the libraries’ best interest in mind would obviously be of great benefit to the libraries (and communities by extension). Furthermore, it would also allow more focus to be placed on the problem of funding discrepancies as a direct result of surrounding communities’ economic status. And I’m all for balancing per capita inequalities.
That being said, I feel a little hesitant about the consolidation part. Amdursky seemed a bit indifferent to potential branch closures and staff reductions. I simply would not feel good about consolidating libraries into fewer buildings with less staff unless the benefits were obvious and abundant. Doing so would certainly lend efficiency to the system, but it would be incredibly important to ensure that patrons in less-populated rural areas were not being neglected and that local culture was maintained. However, if these concerns are accounted for then overall I view Amdursky’s proposal quite positively. It seems difficult, but doable. And I look forward to seeing what other solutions the library world can come up. Even more than that, I look forward to seeing something put into motion.