Usually before I write a blog post I check the news to see if anything juicy or depressing is happening in the greater libraryland area. As of this writing, a top story showing up in Google News was the threatened closure of the Camden (NJ) public library system at the end of the year because of cuts in the mayor’s budget.
Granted, the system has only three libraries and 21 employees, so in the big scheme of things library this doesn’t mean much. And the threat to close may spark more money from the mayor or a voter referendum or some such, or the library system might get to join with other county libraries, which apparently they used to belong to, according to a comment on one of the articles.
But closing the system entirely instead of closing two of three branches and cutting the other one as necessary would be both significant and stupid.
Significant, because it’s never been done before. A few libraries in Oregon seem to keep closing or threatening to close, but often after voters refuse to support a tax referendum. Here, it’s strictly because of poverty.
And boy is Camden poor, and dangerous to boot, at least according to the Wikipedia article about it. The schools and police department have been taken over by the state (presumably for mismanagement). That’s the good part.
In 2009, Camden had the highest crime rate in the U.S. with 2,333 violent crimes per 100,000 people while the national average was 455 per 100,000. Camden public schools spend $17,000 per student per year yet only two thirds of the students graduate. Two out of every five residents are below the national poverty line.
It would be stupid for all sorts of reasons, but mostly because once closed, as I’ve argued before, libraries are hard to reopen. Especially since, in this case, the library board is threatening to get rid of all the books and other materials, in addition to firing the staff. Books are a “fire hazard,” supposedly. Probably all that spontaneous combustion they’re prone to.
I don’t know the usage statistics for Camden libraries. I’m assuming low. According to one of the news articles, 600 children participated in summer programs. Is that a lot for a city of 70,000 or so? It doesn’t seem like it. The libraries get 150,000 visits a year, which also doesn’t seem a lot. Everyone in Camden goes twice a year.
One could argue this is a city that desperately needs libraries, but then again the libraries haven’t helped keep the city from becoming the most dangerous city in America. The libraries, along with the schools, might not be part of the problem, but they’re sure not part of the solution.
So the closure would be stupid–if there was still a city.
If we non-Camden residents (as I’m assuming most of us are) were to look at this problem from afar, what might we suggest? More state funding for the library system? A more equal distribution of wealth across the state’s libraries? Perhaps tax the whole country so Camden could continue to decline?
What about just dissolving Camden? That might be the easiest thing to do. Relocate any citizens who wanted to leave and raze the city to the ground. Though most of the property is probably private, and a lot of people wouldn’t want their property razed. So anyone who wanted to stay with most of the citizens relocated and all city services dissolved could stay.
Otherwise, I don’t seem much hope for Camden or its libraries. Oh, I know, everyone is saying how mean and heartless is the AL. But let’s face it, this is the fate of cities all over the country. There are just places that no one wants to live if they can help it. And a lot of the people who still want to live there just won’t face the fact of inevitable decline.
Detroit is closing half its schools because it has half the population it used to have. People who can live in places other than Detroit, Camden, and numerous other cities and small town around America have left already.
$17K per student for failing schools? 40% of residents below the poverty level? 2/3 of the residents can’t afford Internet access? One library board member suggested laying off one police officer and one firefighter to keep a branch open, and this in the city that’s already the most dangerous in America.
Yes, it will be bad for the people left in Camden if their libraries close. But it’s already bad for them. It would be more humane for New Jersey or the federal government or someone to take it over, relocate everyone, and start fresh. Maybe FEMA could move in. It sounds like Camden is permanently in emergency status.
Closing Camden’s libraries could be like a thousand lawyers at the bottom of the ocean–a good start.