How Philly Could Determine the Fate of Public Libraries

Posted in Uncategorized by groffellison on January 20, 2009

news2It’s easy to get polemic and bust a rhyme or two on the fantastic history unfolding in D.C. this week. But, since we’re supposedly ushering in a “new era” of comity and political virtue, we’d be remiss without any reflection on what we can contribute to our most precious human resource: kids. Which is why we should pay close attention to how a standoff over a big city library system could have far-reaching consequences.

Trapped, like many other cities and states, in fierce battle for fiscal survival, Philadelphia faces a $1 billion budget shortfall forcing its new school era Mayor Michael Nutter into tough choices. Nutter, who boldly campaigned in 2006 with an anti-machine message in the city that coined “pay-to-play,” got pressed into a tight fix, having to fall back from promises on the stump in an effort to stave off budgetary oblivion. This means digging deep into Philly’s coffers in a search for money that really isn’t there. Hence, look to cut programs perceived as easy prey: libraries.

Shutting down 11 of them in a troubled system of 54 branches seemed plausible and sensible, a fairly reasonable and less dubious path of action given the economic climate. In this digital age, modern convention dictates that few use the library anyway. Everything is Googled or parsed into bits of USB-fitted flash drives. The convenience of rapid access tends to trump intellectual curiosity these days, with libraries ranked at the lowest rung of the information food chain. That’s unfortunate. And anyone familiar with fledgling urban library systems is fully aware that neighborhood tome repositories aren’t exactly attracting as much community support and advocacy these days. No surprise that the 11 branches picked for closure are located in the north and south western parts of the city, where we find the bulk of “Ill-town’s” most neglected, impoverished and Blacker neighborhoods. City Hall strategists made a shrewd calculation: if we close them, who will notice?

Defying political wisdom, quite a few did take notice – and the book flap hit the fan. A coalition of library patrons, City Council members and lawyers literally threw the book at Nutter, citing an obscure 20-year old city ordinance which stipulated the Mayor could not unilaterally close “city buildings” without City Council approval. Common Pleas Court Juge Idee Fox ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, maintaining her position even after city attorneys desperately pleaded that keeping the whole system open could actually make a bad situation worse with drastic cuts beyond the nearly dozen proposed.

Nutter may have wrongly assumed his libraries could be an easy target for the fiscal hatchet. His attempt at solvency earned the now embattled communications-savvy Mayor many critics within the City of Brotherly Love, as parents, activists, lawyers and students appeared to gang up on him.

Philadelphians, for the most part, are hisorically accustomed to hard times and humble beginnings in this steely blue collar gotham of 1 million residents. Keeping that in mind, many Philly dwellers frantically hold on to old traditions and symbols because it’s all we’ve got under fairly dreadful circumstances – which might explain our fanatic loyalty to the city’s sports teams.

Which leads to the outrage. Public libraries in places like North or West Philly are virtual safe havens for kids with few alternatives after school. There is a longstanding preemptive element to the public library: for every child or teenager with their head in a textbook or glazing through that day’s homework is one less idle mind wreaking criminal havoc. Some of my first books ever were picked from a Logan Library shelf; it was, for certain, a second home. Indeed, Logan library was the undisputed intellectual core of our neighborhood, a place where many a student – from straight-A types to those who were barely passing – found a spot to complete lessons, enjoy a good book or kill time within safer walls until parents returned from work. Public librarians get many props for playing a crucial and thankless role in caring for neighborhood kids that aren’t theirs.

The basic notion of a city library as community center should be enough to persuade the Nutter Administration against closure. Not really. We must understand the Mayor is faced with a dilemma of Machiavellian proportion, forced to cut the few to save the many. The fact that he’s bold-faced straight about it and opts for full disclosure earns him an accolade or two. But, Nutter, in his haste to maintain both political austerity and compassionate public face, could be missing out on a greater opportunity. Philly could be on the cusp of creating a model for urban renewal and intellectual renaissance – through it’s fledgling library system.

Nutter himself lit that light bulb when he claimed, amid storming criticism from angry advocates, a future move to possibly transform the closed libraries into “knowledge centers.” Alluding to city interest in a public-private partnership, the Mayor talked of inviting corporate sponsors to annex the closed libraries “rent free” while encouraging them to build learning centers. On the real, Nutter doesn’t appear to have really considered it – crisis communications leads elected officials to say things they never thought about and end up regretting later. He was simply taming the opposition. His fetch bone.

But, if carefully designed and managed, the concept of “knowledge center” could dramatically reshape urban centers and revive a new age of intellectual enlightenment. Take it a step further than simply having companies own naming rights to the libraries. We all agree that libraries, as we know them, are becoming a bit obsolete – even though we like them. But, it doesn’t matter how much public affection we pour on an obsolete institution if it’s hurting the bottom line. Why not consider a model that not only provides a sorely needed face lift for the 21st century library, but also puts it in a position to actually serve as a reliable revenue stream and economic development engine for government?

The problem with libraries in the modern age is that they are “free” and “open.” That doesn’t comport with city and state governments bitten by the corporate bug, mayors and governors measuring progress on performance management models and the creation of diverse revenue sources. In this environment, governments are either outsourcing services or searching for ways in which they can partner with private businesses. Businesses, of course, reap the rewards of either massive branding opportunities or direct profit. This could save libraries while simultaneously reviving neighborhoods in need of an economic boost.

Typically, cities rely on the building of either subway stops or sprawling retail centers to serve as hubs which attract economic progress to a neighborhood. But, privately-owned, government-sponsored “knowledge centers” sprinkled in key “hot spots” or areas needing an injection of development could be more potent.

Governments could easily emulate the local Borders or Barnes & Noble model as a basic first step. These leading bookstore chains are already nothing more than corporate-owned libraries where many consumers now spend countless hours browsing through books, accessing WiFi and sipping on the latest caffeinated drink. Rather than close the libraries altogether, Nutter could propose a dramatic and inexpensive overhaul of the public library system whereby corporations are invited to adopt those locations, take them over “rent-free” and renovate them into multi-faceted “knowledge centers.” These centers would not only serve as libraries, but also highly sophisticated community hubs offering an array of services, products and information access points through either conventional book learning or digital medium: from WiFi hotspots to computer labs and “cafes;” from “mini-universities” where both certificate-driven courses, GED programs or college credits are earned to conference locations for workshops, community forums and seminars; from classes in the visual and performing arts to lessons in martial arts. The library ceases being simply a pit stop for latch-key kids, but also as economic and intellectual drivers. The economic development component kicks in as these innovative centers expand based on use and interest.

As an incentive, businesses investing in these efforts could receive generous tax breaks; perhaps there would be room for discussing revenue sharing with the city. The lure of businesses fulfilling a community service or an aspect of corporate responsibility should be attractive. Businesses, such as a FedEx/Kinkos or UPS store, may want to offer services within these centers; Starbucks or Seattle’s Best could sell coffee and pastries. Another revenue source for the city could come in the form of very cheap annual usage fees: a Netflix model of book, audio and visual media borrowing. What’s $10 or $20 per year in annual usage fees for the luxury of checking out as many books or CDs/DVDs as you want for a 2-3 week period? Why not offer legal digital file sharing services or access points for the downloading of music onto mp3 players? And, although WiFi could be free (with libraries, perhaps, serving as wide-ranging wireless router points for whole neighborhoods, thereby allowing Philly to realize its mission of citywide WiFi), patrons would have to pay very nominal fees for use of center-owned PCs provided by corporate sponsors.

This is all very conceptual, but if applied correctly, city governments like Philly could successfully create socio-economic engines in communities in need, with “knowledge centers” serving as both job training facilities or even college recruitment facilities. And, changing the face of the library to catch up with modern trends could be a way to naturally attract neighborhood youth to a vast and compelling interactive world of knowledge acquisition.


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