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Despite the grim economic circumstances in 2009, voters delivered an overwhelming vote of confidence to their local libraries. In fact, 84 percent of all operating referenda passed nationwide.
Just a few of the successes: in Michigan, where the unemployment rate leads the nation, Cass City's Rawson Memorial District Library's annual operating referendum was passed by an extraordinary 89 percent. In Connecticut, the citizens of Bridgeport approved the state's first-ever operating referendum specific to the library, and supporters outnumbered the opposition by a margin of two to one.
And while building referenda presented a tougher battle, nearly 54 percent passed, including a $17 million bond for the Snake River School District and Community Library in Blackfoot, ID, which topped the charts in size of winning appeals last year.
A bevy of levies
For libraries, the impact of the derailed economy was felt more fully in 2009 than in 2008, as tax revenues decreased and public funds dwindled. By February 2009, the American Library Association (ALA) reported from a survey of its Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA) that 41 percent of states expected declining state funding for public libraries, with South Carolina and Florida particularly hard-hit. By July, Ohio's public libraries, top ranked in the United States for per capita state funding, faced a devastating cut of nearly 20 percent. Within six weeks of that announcement, 30-plus Ohio library districts responded with organized ballot measures for new operating levies that would keep libraries from decreasing services.
Pat Losinski, director of the Columbus Metropolitan Library and part of the backbone of strong library leadership in Ohio, attributes Ohio libraries' lightning-fast response to the state's system of independent governance for libraries. "When you're independent, you don't need to line up at the city council's door with your hat in your hand and tell your sob story," says Losinski. Instead, Ohio libraries could take their requests to voters in very short order.
The bevy of Ohio public libraries were among the 123 reported here that went to the polls with appeals for levies and bonds to support their work. In fact, the number of operating levies reported to LJ in 2009 was triple the number reported in 2008 and four times the total in 2007. "The library experienced cuts from the state, county, and city in one budget cycle when already struggling to provide services," says Lisa Matte, director of the Jervis Public Library in Rome, NY. "Going directly to the patrons was our last and strongest resort. [Our operating measure] passed due to tremendous community support harnessed in an organized campaign, bringing staff, trustees, and patrons together."
Jervis PL wasn't alone. Libraries nationwide won, despite the reality that voters were losing their homes to foreclosures at an alarming rate. Here are some of the reasons they voted to support their local libraries.
New respect for free
The context of the poor economy has put the value of library service in the spotlight. Reducing expenses and finding simple ways to save became fashionable in 2009 (witness the emergence of words like frugalista in Target ads) and with it has come a new respect for the free entertainment available at the library--books, movies, events, and classes. No surprise then, that in the second half of 2008 as the economy was unraveling, ALA reported record levels of library card registration, with 68 percent of Americans holding a card.
But the library has revealed itself to be more than free entertainment in this new economy: it's also a resource for Internet access when broadband or even dialup becomes too expensive to have at home: a reliable office from which to conduct a job search--and help in identifying where and how to search: and homework help and a safe haven for kids. It's a setting that has allowed libraries to distinguish themselves from businesses such as Internet search engines and megabookstores that crossed into their traditional space. Losinski feels libraries' evolving focus on providing transformational services has built goodwill equity--a la "this place is not only good for the community, it's good for me'--that could be drawn on when it was time to ask for money.
"When people are defaulting on their mortgages but still vote to invest in their library, they're clearly recognizing this as a core service." Losinski says. "If anyone is questioning libraries' viability, the rate of referenda passage has proven something."
Knowing voter limits
Still. that doesn't mean libraries are getting a free ride. The high passage rate of operating referenda may also reveal libraries' outstanding read of what their communities will bear and what they will not. The successes in 2009 were carefully orchestrated, and winning requests included few bells and whistles.
In Washington, Sno-Isle Libraries' operating referendum was trimmed to cover just enough to maintain services, with a message sent to the voters who were being asked to sacrifice: the library was willing to make sacrifices, too. "Senior administrators agreed to a three percent pay cut next year even if the levy passed," said communications director Mary Kelly in her response to the LJ survey. That message made for a powerful one-two punch when paired with the library's consistent communication about high demand for library service during difficult economic times. The referendum passed with 53 percent of the vote.
Looking at the year's building referenda shows that libraries scaled back dramatically in their requests as compared to 2008. There were …