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April 28, 2004

Comparing Apples and Rutabagas

Jessamyn wrote about the new Seattle Public Library: "Let's just say it: the more money you spend building your Big Beautiful Library, the less you have to pay for staffing, and open hours."

This is weird science: facility construction and operational costs are nearly always unrelated. Libraries are built with one-time building bonds and major capital fundraising drives (and sometimes, government grant assistance), while support for routine library operations comes from local government.

For supporting library services year to year, it is a well-supported truism in libraryland that you will be better off if you go directly to the voters for their support, taxing them directly for your services. Library staff hours are often first on the cutting block when cities need to make cuts, and I remember how tough it was as a rural library director to appeal to a tiny government for additional funding. Yet voters are often surprised into opening their pocketbooks when asked to make a relatively modest direct contribution for good local library services. A reporter for the Seattle Times, commenting about the service cuts at SPL, made this point eloquently if somewhat obliquely: "King County libraries are funded differently from Seattle's. Their operating costs come primarily from property tax revenues, while Seattle's come from the city's general fund."

My local public library in the city of Richmond, California can tell you all about that. Always poor, always underfunded, always begging for scraps, the library has now closed its three branches and may shut down entirely at the end of June. Having weary old pre-prop-13 buildings hasn't helped it any.

Don't begrudge Seattle its biblioedifice. The new facility draws much-needed attention and interest to library services at a most opportune time, and who knows what can happen for library services when all eyes are drawn to the building that houses them. Instead, let's just say it: learn the strategies that work for real library advocacy.

Posted by kgs at April 28, 2004 08:39 AM

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Thanks for pointing out that Seattle's lovely new Central Library is not the cause of the cut-back in hours. Sure it's disheartening to know that Seattle's new Central Library will only be open 58 hours per week, but it's not because Seattle citizens spent their money on a building at the expense of general operating funds.

Posted by: Karen Farley at April 28, 2004 11:49 AM

Having an attractive building *is* important. Dilapidated buildings like they have in DC drive customers out. Would you rather sit in a Borders or B&N that's a decent temperature and clean or a skanky library? They needed this to compete. (I agree with KGS on the bond thingy.) My local county government is surprisingly supportive of the libraries.

Posted by: Christina at April 28, 2004 12:25 PM

It's always struck me that big, beautiful libraries are good for a community--and that they represent an opportunity/obligation for the library to get the word out that good operational funding is needed. So I'm not disagreeing here.

Maybe the key is that any library facing a construction project should also be working on a "political" project to assure appropriate operational levels, and make sure the public understands that the library as an edifice doesn't do the job.

Posted by: Walt Crawford at April 28, 2004 12:52 PM

And I do not disagree with the private comment that bonds for construction should also accomodate staffing increases demanded by the new facility. I'm simply objecting to the building-versus-staff scenario, and pointing out that a new building can be an asset for advocacy for operations.

Posted by: K.G. Schneider at April 28, 2004 12:57 PM

I'm not necessarily begrudging the city its fancy library; it's an attractive lasting edifice that people will be proud of for a long time. However, the adjustment period is frequently rough for cities with new libraries, which is the point I am trying to highlight. Unforseen circumstances [in this case the tech bubble bursting, people getting less excited about paying higer taxes, and a host of other things] have put Seattle in an awkward position where people voted for an initiative that was supposed to benefit downtown and neighborhood libraries [with building projects as well as other infusions of cash and upgrades] and what they wound up with was a lot of fancy buildings, an overstressed/overworked staff, hiring freezes and layoffs, two free weeks off per year with no pay, and patrons who love the new libraries, for the most part, but are now getting fewer hours to use them.

I understand the "the money comes out of different pots" argument. And yet, the staffing and facilities needs required to maintain newer larger buildings often expand without corresponding expansion in those budgets. Those are not different money pots, and the lack of money to adequately staff and maintain newer nicer buildings takes money out of a pot intended to maintain and staff all the libraries. Similarly, the development departments that are working to fund building initiatives work for all the libraries and have to prioritize their time as well. I think splitting themoney up is the easy part. Appropriately and fairly portioning the institutional efforts that go to the new sexy libraries as well as the old failing libraries is hard, and not always done well.

I'd like to see these new building projects come with built in priorities to maintain existing services at the same time as they improve edifices and image.

Posted by: jessamyn at April 29, 2004 07:41 AM

But Jessamyn, that wasn't your argument in your post. You drew a very simple relationship: building versus staff. In fact, for all we know (do you know otherwise?), SPL did include money for staff in its building bond. We'd have to ask the director about that.

librarian.net is just a blog, but nonethless: your post was riddled with assumptions about what SPL had or had not done, based on two public facts: SPL cut its hours; SPL built a new library. Your post wasn't just limited in its conclusions; it needed better legwork to support your arguments. A little virtual shoe-leather was in order. You also misrepresented the Seattle Times editorial you cited in your post, and unintentionally, I think, you missed the most significant point the writer was making about how libraries are funded.

I would also be careful about criticizing SPL's decision to do well-publicized furloughs. Every library administrator faces an agonizing series of choices when budget cuts must be made: layoffs? Furloughs? Book budgets? I don't know all of the factors that went into their decisions, but look at the positive press SPL has received for taking this approach.

Furthermore, you say you are "not necessarily begrudging the city its fancy library," but in fact, your post and this subsequent response, with its reference to "sexy" and "pretty" libraries, did indeed do just that.

Posted by: K.G. Schneider at April 29, 2004 08:26 AM