The Case for Consolidation

Our 19th-century model of governance is a formula for mediocrity We need fewer public libraries with greater independence. Here at the beginning of the 21st century, public libraries are still saddled with a 19th-century model of government. They are far too beholden to governing authorities, usually municipal or county governments, for their financial sustenance. This is a formula for mediocrity. "Local control" is the watchword of that 19th-century model of government. It is based on the idea that citizens have a right and responsibility to govern themselves and to control issues at the local level, issues that are outside the purview of the state and federal authorities. Zoning, land use policies, public schools, and public libraries are all examples of government services that are usually subject to local control. The concept sounds fine, even noble, but local control is the Trojan horse that helps institutionalize racism, keeps the poor poor, and provides a convenient cover for politicians and others who benefit from a stratified society but do not want to accept responsibility for its ills. No sensible citizen wants to give more power to states, nor, heaven forbid, to the federal government, but growth is restricted and economies are damaged by the plethora of government units and jurisdictions duplicating services across too much of our nation. We do not need villages, townships, cities, and counties all delivering overlapping services to the same citizens.

Expensive and inefficient

The Kalamazoo Public Library (KPL), MI, is an interesting example of what is wrong with local control. Many of Kalamazoo's experiences are replicated in many parts of the United States. The demographics of the 562 square mile Kalamazoo County, based on the 2000 U.S. Census Data, show a population of 238,603, of whom 12 percent live in poverty and 12.6 percent are African American and/or Hispanic. KPL serves 119,517 citizens of the City of and Township of Kalamazoo. The population of the city in that 2000 Census was 77,145, of whom 24.3 percent live in poverty and 26.7 percent were African American and Hispanic. In addition to the city, the jurisdiction called the Township of Kalamazoo had a population of 21,675 in the census, of whom only 11 percent live in poverty and 15.4 percent were African American and Hispanic. To serve the other half of the county's population there are ten libraries with constituencies that vary in size from 2400 to nearly 50,000. This situation is not unique to libraries. There are 24 municipal taxing units (cities, townships, villages), nine school districts, and 11 public libraries in the county. In the Kalamazoo area there is too much government being directed at a small population in a limited geographic area. This is both expensive and inefficient, but for many reasons we don't take the obvious course of action and consolidate.

Bureaucracy, money, and race

The status quo is comfortable, and change is difficult. The level of difficulty involved in changing existing government structure is exceptionally high. The current model of local government developed, at least in part, because of an inherent distrust of government and authority. It might be easier to convince the general public of the benefits of merger than of the values of existing governmental units, library boards, directors, and staffs. The public is apt to focus on cost savings and service delivery while those working in entrenched bureaucracies tend to fear for their jobs or diminished authority and control. Money will always be an issue. In Michigan, the primary way to fund libraries is through property taxes. Statewide, property values fluctuate radically. If libraries merged along county lines, some taxpayers, primarily in wealthier suburban areas, would see their taxes rise while many urban centers would see a decline. The issues of race and poverty cannot be discounted. No advanced degrees are required to understand that people who live in 22 of Kalamazoo's 24 government jurisdictions live in primarily white communities that are not challenged by substantial populations who live in poverty. Most of those people have made a conscious choice not to live in Kalamazoo's two most diverse communities. The trinity of entrenched bureaucracy, uneven revenue distribution, and racism are formidable foes in attempting to achieve change. Public libraries will need all the help they can get to expand service areas and consolidate existing libraries into larger systems. Yet failure to pursue that expansion will diminish the role of the public library in many communities.

Littered landscape

Urban centers, with well-established libraries, are fighting for their very survival. A combination of declining tax revenues and competition for remaining funds with stronger governmental departments like police and fire have created an unfriendly landscape where the choices are to eliminate branches, cut the materials budget, reduce hours, lay off staff, and defer capital purchases. Detroit, Minneapolis, and Seattle are just three well-documented examples of urban libraries losing ground in their fight to maintain service levels in an increasingly hostile financial terrain. While urban centers are struggling, the suburban landscape is often littered with small libraries that cannot deliver the broad range of services their customers want. Their service populations and tax bases are too small to develop the type of broad-based program that can be seen as a value added. The Internet and huge chain bookstores can be a threat to the existence of these public libraries, if not today, tomorrow.

Making the case

Tough economic times can be the catalyst for change. Large libraries have deep collections, seasoned staffs, historical perspective, and broad-based programming expertise to contribute. Collectively, smaller libraries bring a growing tax base, often a growing service population, and frequently a concentration on preschool- and school-aged children. With a focus on their strengths, larger and smaller libraries could create together a new and far more dynamic organization - a consolidation based on strengths. One of the major benefits of consolidation is the likelihood of independent governance accompanied by a dedicated revenue stream. When two or more units of government merge, their former governing authorities want to shed the fiduciary and programmatic responsibility. By allowing independence, the former parent governments are relieved of the difficult work of allocating resources. They remove one set of demands from their budget problems. Independence has risks, but it is critical to the health and well-being of the public library. The first risk for every independent library is that ultimate patron satisfaction survey, the tax levy. The vast majority of library levies pass with substantial pluralities. If voters are not willing to tax themselves to support their library then they have made a choice to live without this service. Communities that fail to support a regional library will have difficulty attracting new residents and businesses. When public libraries are not affiliated with a larger political unit they are literally working without a net. They take on new responsibility for hiring, contract negotiations, accounting, payroll, purchasing, facilities, compliance with a variety of federal and state laws, and myriad other seemingly mundane issues that were once the purview of a parent organization. This is not especially interesting or exciting work, but it is critical to organizational success. A clean annual audit is every bit as important to an independent taxing entity as innovative and extensive programming.

New laws needed

New laws that allow libraries to merge and to become independent taxing districts are needed in more than half of the states. Those states with such laws on the books already will want to review and strengthen their statutes. State library associations will need to be galvanized to lobby, and state librarians will need to demonstrate a high level of stewardship. The American Library Association should be actively involved in drafting model legislation to allow consolidated library districts. Locally, librarians will need to understand the political climate to sell the concept of consolidation and independence to their political leaders and citizens. They must explain the benefits of jettisoning the library in terms of a city or township budget. Local politicians need to understand how the creation of an independent public library can benefit them. Library directors and boards need to be able to articulate clearly the benefits of a larger unit to the entire constituency. Ideally there will be cost benefit ratios that allow a more dynamic programmatic offering in smaller libraries while relieving some of the financial burden experienced by larger ones.

Tough questions

Equally important will be the ability to answer tough questions: Will consolidation eliminate urban branches or some suburban or rural outlets? Will "my" library retain its local appeal or simply be the library equivalent of another chain store outlet? Will tax dollars be directed based on their origin? How will policy decisions be made and will they be applied uniformly? Who will lead the new library organization? The goal of consolidation is increased efficiency. Usually this is realized in areas like human resources, accounting, and marketing. It will be difficult to convince voters to support a merger if it eliminates "their" library. Still, some discussion of how decisions on closures would be made is essential. It is essential to be open and honest in this area. Retention of a library's atmosphere will be a major leadership challenge for the board and administration. Assigning the right staff, building collections responsive to local needs, designing area-specific programming, and, where appropriate, taking some architectural risks will all help a branch library's image with its users. There is no direct relationship between where dollars are generated and where they are spent. Instead, in a consolidation, program development addresses the library needs of the entire citizenry. Suburban outlets that serve commuters may see a heavier investment in audiobooks, for example. Inner-city branches may focus more on literacy issues. Money invested in expansive program development aimed at touching as many lives as possible can trump issues of race and poverty. One of the real benefits of consolidation is uniform policy for the entire library system. Patrons who use many different libraries are confused by their conflicting policies and fee structures. The list is endless and annoying. The board, upon the recommendation of the administrative staff, will make policy decisions. Enforcement will be consistent.

Implementation issues

A new consolidated library will need a governing board. It takes great effort to be sure that a board represents all segments of the library district yet is still small enough to function effectively. People need to know that their interests are represented and protected. The board should be concerned with the best overall delivery of service to the entire community, not just one constituency. More challenging will be the new systems dealings with inherited staff. For openers, there can only be one library system director. A measure of leadership for some of the librarians may be their willingness to give up the title "director," but don't bet on it. The demand for public service will not diminish, and this will mean needs for staff. There may be savings to be realized in "back room" and administrative functions. Most difficult, there can be no guarantee that all staff, whether they are involved in technology, processing, human resources, or what have you, will retain their existing duties or even their jobs. Public libraries are a government service. Their continued well-being and ability to serve diverse patrons are linked to consolidation and independence. It is a modern model followed by corporate America. If librarians are brutally honest and focus solely on the welfare of the patron, they will find that larger library units in more densely populated areas will be the best model of governance to maximize revenues, reduce expenses, and truly serve the most diverse clientele with a broad range of programs. Regional libraries with an independent revenue stream and an independent board will discover that their contribution to the community is only limited by their imagination and creativity.
Saul Amdursky is Director, Kalamazoo Public Library, MI, winner of LJ's 2002 Library of the Year Award

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