March 22, 2018

Jefferson County, AL, Bankruptcy Cuts Library Funding

The bankruptcy of Jefferson County, AL, is leaving a trail of collateral damage to services in its wake, libraries included. Until the current crisis, the Jefferson County Library Cooperative (JCLC) had received the majority of its funding from the county for 33 years.

Jefferson County 1920s bookmobile

JCLC's ancestor: In the 1920s, Jefferson County funded a wagon bookmobile

Unfortunately, the county has had to cut the cooperative’s funding over and over. In 2010 the funding was halved to $500,000, according to The Birmingham News. In 2011 it was halved again, according to the News. And in 2012 the county eliminated funding for the co-op altogether.

Today, the co-op subsists largely on its emergency reserve fund (which it had been increasing since 2006, when the county’s fiscal problems began to look serious), and on fees from its 22 member libraries. “Libraries are paying higher member fees than ever. And at a time when their city funding is level or they have sustained local cuts also,” Patricia F. Ryan, executive director of JCLC, told LJ.

The local libraries are funded locally, so the county bankruptcy does not impact them directly. However JCLC provides them with services such as internet access, one centralized catalog and one centralized library card, and book and DVD delivery between libraries. (JCLC transports about 4 million items per year.) JCLC also pays the annual maintenance fee for downloadable ebooks and audiobooks, though each member library buys their own titles, and serves the unincorporated areas that have no local library. Less than half of the 46 cities in Jefferson County have a locally funded library.

“It’s a little bit terrifying,” Renee Blalock, director of the Birmingham Public Library, told LJ. “For Birmingham Public the cooperative is kind of a godsend. Our budget has been severely cut and we are trying to maintain hours and services. Without having access to the collections of all the other members of the cooperative we’d be in trouble.” The co-op lets small libraries share the depth of BPL’s collection, she said, while BPL benefits from their acquisition of newer materials.

In the past the co-op also provided free access to databases, but Heritage Quest and News Bank access to Birmingham News full-text has already been canceled to save money, and the fate of Reference USA is being considered. The co-op has also had to cut staff. “Everyone is wearing two to three hats,” Ryan said, “and in some cases our member libraries have picked up tasks to save money.”

To make up the shortfall, the co-op began soliciting donations in 2009. In 2009-10, the co-op raised $15,000; in 2010-2011 that doubled to $33,000, and JCLC’s goal is to triple its donations to $99,000 this year. Two campaigns have already raised $63,000 since Oct. 1, 2011. The coop received $10,773 from Alabama’s first Alabama Gives Day statewide campaign, putting JCLC in the top five by amount of funds given. JCLC also ranked first as People’s Choice on the event’s website. The co-op also had to start charging out-of-county residents a $50 fee for library cards, according to The Birmingham News. $15 goes to the co-op and the rest, to the local library.

Going forward, the coop is “about to roll out a campaign to ask each adult cardholder to donate $5 when they renew their card annually,” Ryan told LJ. “We have 370,000 cardholders. We know not everyone can donate, but many will donate more than $5 when asked. Our goal is to raise $100,000 through renewal donations.”

Of course all these donations, while impressive, do not come close to matching the support that the county used to provide. But the co-op isn’t letting the current lack of financial support sour its relationship with the county government.

Ryan says the county commissioners are very supportive of library system services, “but they just do not have the funds at this time, and we understand that. We are trying to be team players and are partnering with them to distribute Rx discount savings cards that can raise money for the county, and to get the message out that you can visit your local library to do business online when possible. We have done PR in years past when the court houses were first closed, and plan to roll out more PR soon working closely with the Commission.”

Blalock, too, is sympathetic to the county’s dilemma. “The Jefferson County Commission is having a hard time too,” she said, “Their job is extremely difficult and I try not to second guess them. Every time I see them they say, ‘I haven’t forgotten you, as soon as we get any money…’”.

The coop is also urging the directors of its member libraries to speak with local legislators and let them know that the library system funding is part of what the county lost with the demise of the occupational tax, a major contributor to the county’s financial dilemma and something the county hopes the state legislature will fix. “Most do not realize how we are funded, so this has been a surprise to them,” Ryan said. “We have stressed that voters love libraries.”

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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  1. Gwen Welch says:

    JCLC’s “One County One Library Card” provides citizens county-wide access to library resources without visiting individual libraries. Yesterday, using the online services of JCLC I reserved several books to check out from libraries throughout the county that will be delivered to my favorite library.

  2. Barbara C. Sirmans says:

    The Jefferson County Library Cooperative is a “:jewel” that we must not allow to lose its glitter. Everyone in the county benefits from this cooperative effort in one way or another. We must all lobby our legislators to ensure that they know how important this service is to all constituents. We must not fail!!