All eyes are on Miami-Dade, as they should be. The tragic budget cuts that will almost halve what has been a highly regarded public library system should have every library leader on alert. I worry that it’s a suffering canary in the coal mine, a warning we can’t ignore. We must understand what happens there.
In short, the Miami-Dade Public Library System, FL, faces the closure of some 22 of 49 branches, the loss of 251 jobs, and reduced hours. It is hard to imagine. Yet soon, unfortunately, it will be realized in the vast lost services to this county of approximately 2.5 million people.
[Editor's note: Since press time for the July 2013 print issue in which this editorial appeared, the projection for Miami-Dade improved in terms of branch closures. As of August 15, only four branches were expected to close. The significant budget cuts will instead by absorbed by cuts in hours and staff.]
Too much of the public discussion has focused on a myth: the inevitable demise of libraries. As LJ senior editor Meredith Schwartz reported, Mayor Carlos Gimenez told a local news channel, “people have said that the age of the library is probably ending.” Hardly. The use of libraries nationwide spiked 32.7 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Miami-Dade’s libraries are themselves very busy, with 3.6 million visits from October 2012 to April 2013. The remaining branches will be overrun—if patrons can get to them, of course.
It’s important to recognize that these cuts are driven by factors much more complicated than some simple case against libraries. The county is reeling from the impact of budget shortfalls brought on by statewide funding issues on the heels of the Great Recession. In such tough times, even the unthinkable becomes thinkable. Mayor Gimenez’s proposal also hits the fire-rescue department particularly hard, and he used to be chief of Miami’s Fire-Rescue operations.
Nonetheless, the people of Miami-Dade will now have to fight for their library. The Friends group and library community will help bolster the institution. (Here’s a guide to how you can help.) This fight will be costly in terms of stress, time, and distraction from forward momentum on strategic planning to serve the community better. Building the services back will no doubt be a long process—though each win will be worth every effort.
For peer libraries, no matter how robust, Miami’s jeopardy illustrates anew how critical it is to help stakeholders readily make the connection between the library mission and the impact on the community’s economic growth and vitality, to see the library as a critical asset that is worth funding, even in the worst of times—perhaps especially in the worst of times.
But what about that book brand? No doubt one of the essential tasks of the public library is to provide access to books—it remains a key service. Yet one of libraries’ greatest brands—books—can also blinder funders and the major media when it comes time to decide on, and to cover, library closures. At the very least, we need to move public perception to a “Books +” brand or a “books and” brand. Better still, we need a branding strategy that gets past the format and into the impact of the vast access to all kinds of resources that libraries deliver.
When a library gets cut, those powerful—and accountable—public leaders who hold the purse strings should be very clear that they aren’t cutting some quaint book-lending service, something nice and uplifting but fundamentally unnecessary. They are cutting a lifelong education booster. They are cutting an economic driver. They are cutting a key safety net from a culture with all too few safety nets. They should be alert to what will be lost. Perhaps, then, they will see a future for the library that is worth funding and avoid the folly of penny-wise and pound-foolish decisions that would withdraw this key service from the public.