What Library Funding Cuts Look Like, Up Close

Earlier this week, my boss and other library directors across Ohio were in Columbus to lobby for more funding in the new fiscal year.  To help make their case, they should have brought some padded envelopes.  


They're used by us and other members of our regional lending consortium to wrap CDs and DVDs for cargo.  That's library speak for the shipping service that picks up and delivers interlibrary materials.  The better-funded libraries have cloth bags with zippers and drawstring closures in which to ship their stuff.  We little guys make do with recycled mailing and packing material, brought in by staff or saved from the library's own deliveries.  The padded envelopes and scraps of bubble wrap are meant to protect those nasty brittle CD and DVD plastic cases from splintering and shattering.  .

Meaningful protection, though, is elusive.  Most times, there isn't one shred of air left in that bubble wrap.   And I've seen more padding in a bra than I've seen in some of those envelopes, they've been recycled so many times. 

See those black specks on the white and beige envelopes in the photo below?  Those are the holes from  staples, used to seal up the bags before shipping.  Like rings on a tree trunk, they show how long they've been bouncing around in cargo.


Now, this kind of resourcefulness should be practiced always, anyway, by everyone and especially by our public institutions.  It's crazy how wasteful we are.  And office supplies, as anyone who's ever bought a ream of paper or a box of gel pens (rather than filch them from their employer), are expensive.  But it also highlights how much libraries have to do to stretch their resources.  That's because, in Ohio, those resources have been dwindling.

In the last eight years, the state government in Columbus has cut library funding.  In 2009, in the midst of the Great Recession, state lawmakers cut the Public Library Fund's formula for the 2010 and 2011 fiscal years from 2.22% of the state's General Revenue Fund to 1.97%.  In 2012, that formula was cut again, to 1.66%.   That's the same funding level that libraries were receiving in 1996, when Bill Clinton was president, radio shock jock Howard Stern was King of All Media and cell phones were still the size of a shoe.  Since 2008, the PLF went from $450.6 million to $351.9 million in 2013, a nearly 22% decline.  

That has meant reduced hours, reduced staff and, yes, fewer supplies like cargo bags.  It's also meant an increase in local taxes to offset the loss of state funding.  Take a look at these graphics from the Ohio Library Council.  This one is from 2004, when 74 libraries had local tax levies (indicated by green dots) and 177 did not (red dots),  

In 2014, that number was flipped; 178 libraries had local tax levies and 73 did not.

I used to report on threatened library cuts in New York City.  Libraries were always on the chopping block when former mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg proposed their executive budgets.  The City Council always put them back in.  There were hearings, in which dire predictions were made and hands were collectively wrung.  Even now, the New York, Queens and Brooklyn libraries are warning of "a staggering infrastructure crisis" in their aging buildings that they want $1.4 billion to fix.  

It was a two-step budget dance between the mayor and the council that nearly always ended with the executive branch capitulating, and dreaded library service reductions averted.   (Nearly always.  In 2002, libraries had to cut back their hours.)  

It's easy to remain above the fray, with that arms-length journalistic skepticism, when reporting on budgets.  It's more difficult when you're the one pulling staples out of a fraying padded envelope when cargo comes in.  

Want to help?  Go to the Ohio Library Council's website and check out their campaign, "Restore the PLF."  Take to Twitter with #RestorethePLF.  Ask your state lawmakers where they got the books they read when they were a child.  And go check out YOUR local library.  It's cheaper than Amazon.