Libraries in Southern California Face Budget Challenges

By Daniel A. Freeman |

It's a balmy 5 degrees Fahrenheit today in Chicago (well below zero with the wind chill), so naturally I am thinking about warmer places...Southern California, for instance. Of course, as nice as the weather is in the Golden State, a major budget crisis is threatening to freeze out public services and facilities and creating a major headache for California Libraries.

Last week, I made a brief mention of the budget problems facing the San Diego Public Library.  New director Deborah Barrow inherited a major financial challenge upon taking office. This piece from the San Diego Union Tribune discusses how Barrow had to divert $1.7 million from a library improvement fund to keep seven branch libraries operating.

While Barrow managed to fight the mayor's plan to close these branch libraries, Library Journal has reported that the budget cuts that caused this problem may become permanent, so San Diego is not out of the woods. While we may not be privy to the details, it seems likely that some of the money diverted from the library improvement fund would have gone towards updating keeping technology up-to-date.

Of course, the problems are only compounded by the fact that as these budgets are slashed, library use is actually increasing as more families look to stretch their entertainment budgets as far as possible.

Katherine Gould, the director of the Palos Verdes Library District in the Los Angeles Area discussed how this phenomenon has affected her library:

Last Wednesday's Los Angeles Times Business section featured this article on how people are turning to the library to save money in these difficult times.

Here at PVLD we also been incredibly busy, but it wasn't until I reviewed our November statistics that I appreciated just how busy it's been.

Compared to November of 2007 our circulation of materials for adults went up 11% (the circulation of Young Readers items was only up 1.2%, but I think that is because there was less room for growth); our door count across the 3 libraries was up 17%; and the number of unique visitors to our "virtual branch" at increased by 8% while the total number of visits to the website grew by an incredible 34%.

 As librarians, we've seen budget cuts, and we've felt the heat of an economic downturn before. But what we're seeing in Southern California and all too many other places around the country is particularly scary for a couple of reasons.

First of all, the sheer magnitude of the current economic crisis has a lot of people on edge. I don't claim to be an expert (or even a novice) on economic issues, but I read the news a lot, and it seems like the consensus is that the crisis will get worse before it gets better. If libraries are struggling now, what will happen if this crisis drags on for another year or two?

Secondly, we are in the first economic crisis of this magnitude to occur in the Internet age. While our profession has weathered these crises before, the technological nature of many modern library services adds some uncertainty to this one. We don't know how our technology infrastructures are going to react. What if public libraries become flooded with patrons who can no longer afford wi-fi in their homes? Will bandwidth be able to support these types of situations? What if the company that supports your library's ILS goes under? Who will provide you the support you need to keep things running smoothly?

I don't doubt that we'll innovate our way through this crisis, just as we always have. But based on what's starting to happen in places like Southern California, it seems like we have our work cut out for us.