The Slow Burning Fire in the Libraries of America

The Slow Burning Fire in the Libraries of America

One of the great tragedies of ancient history, memorialized in myths and Hollywood film, is the burning of the great library at Alexandria. But the reality of the Library’s end was actually a lot less pyrotechnic than that. A major cause of the Library’s ruin was government budget cuts. — GIZMODO

And now we’re poised to repeat history in the United States.

That’s because libraries in America have been allowed to slowly crumble. This is a result of being overlooked by city, state, and national governments for decades, facing budget cuts from all directions, and losing out on crucial funding needed to maintain their infrastructures.

Libraries are an important community resource that serve diverse groups of people with varied needs. They are impactful in endless ways and can benefit the lives of millions who cross their doors. But, this critical public space could collapse, like the Library of Alexandria if it continues to be neglected and Americans will miss out on the incredible opportunities from libraries.

Send your representatives an email to let them know that you support libraries and the freedom to access books at your local library

One of the major issues that needs to be tackled is maintaining and improving upon the physical library spaces. Library buildings are amazing spaces built to accommodate learning for an entire community and promote collaboration and connection among the community members. The problem that has emerged for many libraries in recent years is their buildings are no longer optimal spaces for its patrons. Buildings age, roofs leak, carpet gets torn. The list goes on. With the amount of use and foot traffic that public libraries get, it makes sense that these spaces will become worn over time. Using a library is great. Librarians and staff members love helping patrons research, prepare for job opportunities, etc. The part that actually hurts the library is when there isn’t enough money for repairs and updates.

In places like New York there is a staggering crisis with failing library infrastructure disproportionately impacting communities that need them most. For example, the Brownsville Library in Brooklyn has such severe problems with its air-conditioning system that it has to close on the hottest days of summer. Water has damaged the ceiling over a heavily used Chinese-language section at the Ulmer Park Library in Brooklyn. The report also cited overcrowding at the Corona Library in Queens and restrooms that were often out of service at the Port Richmond Library on Staten Island.

While the New York city libraries were committed to handling an increase in community engagement and responsibilities, they also acknowledged their desperate need for funding to improve upon the infrastructure of 207 branches serving community members. The libraries made an urgent request for $1.4 billion in funding to help cover their decaying buildings, of which the budget office approved $62.3 million spread over ten years. The Administration agreed that funding was justified yet only offered a small portion of support.

The disappointing aspect of this was the administration’s inaction in providing crucial support for libraries which not only opened their doors to millions of those in need but were also taking on additional responsibilities the city was pushing for in the community. Library patrons cannot adequately be served when libraries and their staff members are dealing with broken boiler rooms, leaky ceilings, and overall poor infrastructure.

The New York City public library system is not the only one that is facing obstacles when it comes to funding the crumbling infrastructure of their libraries. Institutions across the country have been making it known for years that their buildings need attention and care also.

In Maryland, one of the nation’s wealthiest states, according to a November 2019 statewide facilities needs assessment, more than half of the public library buildings are over 25 years old. Consequences of this aging infrastructure are:

  • 17 buildings need a new roof
  • 10 facilities require alterations for ADA compliance
  • 17 libraries have HVAC systems that are at the end of their useful life
  • 42 buildings require technological upgrades in order to provide 21st-century library services
  • 59 existing facilities require general renovation at an estimated cost of $75,000,000
  • 11 buildings have been identified for replacement with a new structure at an estimated cost of $63,000,000

A century-old library in the Paschalville branch in Southwest Philadelphia is also plagued with similar problems. Leaky roofs, drafty windows, and poor hearing and cooling systems are just a few parts of the library that need to be updated. The librarians understand the importance of maintaining this space for their patrons, especially because many who come in to use the library’s resources are job hunters.

The unemployment rate in the surrounding area is significantly higher with 17.3 percent of the people in Paschall unemployed compared to just 5.8 percent in the entire city of Philadelphia. The digital resource specialist at the branch knows that jobs is how the library meets the needs of the community. The branch houses the only Job Readiness Lab in the Free Library’s library system which means plenty of people head there for help with resumes, navigating job websites, and preparing for interviews.

As we look from state to state we are seeing a lot of the same problems. Libraries as an infrastructure are falling apart even while they are one of the most used community resources. In fact, more people visit their library than attend the NFL, NHL, NBA, Nascar, or the movie theater COMBINED. Yet, we’ve seen opposition to libraries from political leaders on both the right and the left who don’t realize that libraries are one of the best investments a community can make. Organizations like the Koch Brothers funded SuperPAC, Americans for Prosperity, don’t seem to understand that libraries often return between $5 and $10 to the community for every dollar spent on them or that libraries provide services to the hundreds of millions of Americans that visit them every single year. There are many politicians like Donald Trump (R), New York Governor Andrew Cuomo(D), Senator Cory Booker (D), NYC Mayor Bill Deblasio (D), and Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin (R) who are threatening library funding because they don’t realize that libraries provide important programs and services like storytimes, after school help, resources and services for small business and startups, and services for returning veterans. Across the country, we have even seen school libraries and library funding decimated by school boards. We can’t let this continue, and that’s why we’re here.

Librarians have also personally called for action. Amy Fry, an E-resources librarian and associate professor at Bowling Green State University made her worries clear in a letter to the editor at “The Chronicle of Higher Education”. She raises her concerns with the “dismantling of the academic library infrastructure that has been going on for years”. A major notice of hers is that higher education is not properly investing in library collections and instead much of the funding that universities receive are being allocated to other departments and purposes. The library materials budget at her university has suffered, seeing no increase in over 14 years. She credits lack of institutional support for library collections as the culprit and believes this decrease in spending money is also a core detriment to libraries.

There can be a lot of anxiety for the future of libraries especially from those that understand its relevance to members of the community. Luckily there are advocates that recognize the need for change. There are happier endings in here for libraries.

The concerns of the Paschalville Library in Southwest Philadelphia were heard in 2018 when Mayor Jim Kenney announced a multi-million dollar investment into the library to help with repairs and upgrades. This Rebuild Project plans to incorporate community input using a designated Community Engagement team led by The Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation and Southwest CDC. They encourage members of the community to keep up with their progress and have community engagement sessions set up this spring and summer. The project hopes to begin construction by fall of next year and have a docket of ideas in mind including modernizing electrical systems, upgrades and restorations to the exterior, ADA compliance, and new furniture.

Late last year, legislation was introduced called the Economic Justice Act which would end up distributing $59 billion worth of funding to school and library infrastructure.

There are plenty of ways for the average person to help support this act. For those that are interested, EveryLibrary has a petition that supports the rebuilding and re-investing in American libraries through the Economic Justice Act.

In order for libraries to continue serving the public to the best of their ability, we need to address the infrastructure needs of libraries in the U.S. especially needs that have emerged due to the COVID-19 pandemic.