Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

More on libraries and Fairfax county's mis-steps

1.  It's interesting after last week's posts on libraries ("A follow up point about "local" library planning and 'access to knowledge'" and "The Central Library planning process in DC") it turns out that even in the metropolitan area, DC isn't the only public library agency to fail in terms of overarching planning and in engaging citizens in the process.

According to today's Washington Post, "Fairfax County library revamps system, discards books, reduces librarians," that county's library system is making the same kinds of mistakes that many other libraries have made in terms of reducing hours, professional staff, and the size of collections in the face of budget reductions, but also justified in response to the impact of "digitization" on the presentation of knowledge.

The library proposes to cut back on professional personnel and has thrown away 250,000 books in what appears to be a poorly conducted de-accessioning process.  I did like one idea from the plan though, reducing resources spent moving books from one branch to another, instead "leaving" books in the collections of the branches they are returned to, and not subsequently returning the book to its "home branch."

The article discusses that Fairfax had three public meetings on the proposed changes, but the meetings were poorly attended.

2.  More recently, Seattle faced similar issues.  They put the choice before voters, who agreed to a  tax increase to fund more staffing and more librarians at branch libraries.

The "Libraries for All" bond in the late 1990s funded both the construction of the Main Library designed by Rem Koolhaas, as well as a branch renovation program and construction of new branches.  Some of the libraries co-locate city functions.  One is in a public housing complex.  See "Seattle Public Library celebrates "Libraries For All" inneighborhoods across the city" from the Seattle Times.

SPL argued that the Proposition 1 proposal was necessary to ensure that the library budget matched the footprint of the expanded system, and would be able to provide the levels of services that patrons expected from the system.

This was controversial, because many stakeholders, including the Seattle Times editorial page, believed that bonding authority should only support capital projects.  But the levy won.  (And this issue touches on taxation and while the paper argued that libraries should be funded out of the city budget, the paper wasn't arguing for ensuring that the tax stream was the right size to fund the functions that people want.)

3.  Libraries are put in a bind because ultimately the Library Director reports to the Executive, and funding decisions are out of the hands of the Director.  In Seattle, the Mayor was supportive of the SPL proposal.  Locally, most agencies lack that kind of support from the Executive, and their hands are tied.  Hence Fairfax County's cutbacks, even as the county population continues to grow.

4.  Related to this issue, I missed this piece from Financial Times, "A new chapter for libraries," in part a response to the opening of the new library in Birmingham, England.  From the article:

It was the Enlightenment that inaugurated a rational new age based on knowledge, in which access to that knowledge was no longer seen as dangerous but as desirable. The Victorians, with a characteristic blend of paternalism and civic pride, instituted libraries as engines of self-improvement testifying to the dynamism of their new industrial cities. Books lost their chains and the library remains one of the few spaces in which we can feel we are citizens rather than consumers, a place to which access is free, in which we ourselves become free.

Today the solid, reassuring presence of the civic library is threatened, and not just by government cuts; the internet, we are told, is obviating the need for books. ...

The contemporary library is, of course, something very different to the stolid classical pile of a century ago. Designed to be open and light, modern libraries take their language more from the commercial corporate office than the civic landmark. They are also – whatever bibliophiles like me might think – about more than just books. As media come and go, from scrolls to VHS cassettes and CD-ROMs, the library adapts. ...

Ultimately, however, the emphasis is firmly on education – and Gambles believes that this represents a return to a traditional role. “When the public library service started in the 1850s, it was about how to give opportunities to those who didn’t have opportunities to learn through the formal system,” he says. “Over time we lost that and the library became about transaction, about finding and borrowing products. That transactional function is withering as there are now so many more media than just the book.”

4. Probably more libraries need to do more expansive planning, as suggested in the above-cited blog entry, "A follow up point about "local" library planning and 'access to knowledge'."

Planning processes, when done right, set the stage for empowered commitment and civic participation and support.

It's the rare library millage vote that is turned down (e.g., "Across Ohio, all 14 library levies, 1 bond request successful" from the Toledo Blade). Although it does happen.

But you have to ask. Otherwise you get nothing.

And afterwards, you have to communicate-communicate-communicate with the electorate-patrons so that they know their "yes" vote is important and makes a difference.

Strategic Planning
  • The Seattle Public Library Strategic Plan 2011-2015 
  • 2012 SPL Budget

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