Opinion

How long can local libraries make do?

Librarian Kendall Brookhart, digital literacy coordinator for the Pierce County Library System, works with Mary Sinclair, 80, to help her sign into a website on her new tablet at the Milton-Edgewood library branch.
Librarian Kendall Brookhart, digital literacy coordinator for the Pierce County Library System, works with Mary Sinclair, 80, to help her sign into a website on her new tablet at the Milton-Edgewood library branch. The News Tribune

Let’s start with the bad news: For most of the last decade, the Pierce County Library System has had to live with a $2 million annual gap between service needs and available funds for its 18 full-service branches.

With a cumulative shortfall of $20 million, librarians’ list of priorities keeps getting shorter. It’s why on Wednesday night, the library system’s board wants to hear from the public before adopting the $31.9 million 2018 budget.

It’s the ethos of every librarian to encourage readers to learn from others before coming to a consensus, so it’s no surprise our library system relies heavily on public input.

Last year, library leaders received 11,500 responses from individuals. They used the feedback to sharpen their focus for a system that serves the whole county except Tacoma, Puyallup and Roy, which maintain city libraries.

Most of the system’s buildings are 25 years old and need significant maintenance, such as replacing roofs, HVAC systems and carpet. But there’s not enough money.

Six years have passed since the system opened its newest library buildings, in Fife, Milton-Edgewood and University Place. Other fast-growing, unserved communities have been identified, such as Frederickson. But where would the money come from? Patrons clamor for longer service hours, but how to pay for it?

Property taxes, which increase on average 1.8 percent a year, make up approximately 97 percent of the system’s revenue stream. The cost to operate and maintain branches goes up 4.1 percent a year, on average. Voters came through with a property tax levy in 2006, but it hasn’t been adjusted to address the widening gap.

It begs the question: “Where is Andrew Carnegie, the patron saint of libraries, when you need him?”

Between 1881 and 1917, the philanthropist built over 2,500 libraries across America. When he opened his first library in his hometown of Dunfermline, Scotland, he had the words “Let there be light” carved into the Gothic-arched entrance.

The “light” signified what he called the “raising of people’s consciousness,” and indeed, that’s been the mission of not just Carnegie libraries but every free-to-all public library, including ours.

But next year, his quote takes on a more literal local meaning. In 2018, there will be no more light at the libraries after closing time. Belt-tightening means the public’s use of meeting rooms after hours — there were 2,494 such bookings in 2016 — will be a thing of the past.

Other reductions include eliminating an outside contract that provides downloadable and streamed movies, TV, and audio books. Funds for new materials available for checkout will drop 18 percent.

But here’s the good news: Library system leaders have done an excellent job ducking and diving around their decreased buying power.

In 2016, patrons checked out books and other items nearly 7.5 million times, while nearly half a million people participated in classes and events. Wifi and computer use is up sharply over the last decade, while wait times for reserve items are down.

The system spends less per capita on books and materials ($6.42 per person each year) than any other like-size library in the region. And forget the myth that libraries are dusty old dinosaurs in the digital age. The number of local library card holders has increased 69 percent since 2006.

But foot traffic and increased circulation don’t translate into more dollars; additional sacrifices may lie ahead, and more public input will be sought in February.

We hope patrons make a point to raise not just their consciousness, as Andrew Carnegie would have it, but their voices as well.

Get involved

What: Pierce County Library Board holds final hearing on 2018 budget.

When: Wednesday at 3:30 p.m.

Where: 3005 112th St. E.., Tacoma

More information: www.piercecountylibrary.org

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