Tuesday, August 16, 2005

On Libraries

There's a columnist for the Buffalo News named Mary Kunz Goldman who, in my opinion, writes well on exactly two topics: classical music, and libraries. On every other topic, she is almost completely nonsensical. She has a column today in which she strenuously objects to the impending closing of more than twenty of the Buffalo and Erie County Library's fifty-two branches (due to county budget problems). Alan objects to her objection, accusing Goldman of missing the point and basically boiling down his position to this: "If you want it, you’ve got to pay for it." The thing is, I'm not really sure that Goldman really misses the point; it's just that she's arguing in favor of the first part of the conditional. She's trying to argue that yes, we do, in fact, want it. That's no small thing, I fear; I think that the view that libraries are still essential in this day of the Interweb and the like is somewhat battered these days. I myself argued otherwise a few months ago. (I also object to Alan's insinuation that the people complaining about libraries closing are rich senior citizens or urban yuppies, but that's another kettle o' fish entirely.)

I'm about as strong a supporter of the libraries as there is, but I do concede that the Buffalo and Erie County system really needs some streamlining. However, the type of streamlining doesn't seem to be debated much: it's either "Keep all the branches open", or "cut the system nearly in half". But are those really the only alternatives?

Consider: As I note above, there are fifty-two libraries in the system, which according to 2004 population figures boils down to one library branch for every 18000 citizens. By contrast, in the Syracuse region, the twenty-eight libraries in the Onondaga County Public Library system provide one branch for every 16,421 citizens. The difference, though, assuming I read things correctly, is that the Onondaga County system only has eight actual branches being operated by the Onondaga County Public Library system directly, while the other twenty member branches are operated by the individual municipalities in Onondaga County. Of course, Onondaga County's population isn't trending downward the way Erie County's is, but it's also an upstate county that has seen massive population loss due to a lot of the same types of factors that have driven Erie County's population downward. And if you compare the number of city branch libraries on a per capita basis between the two cities, you get the following:

Syracuse: Current population, 147306. City branch libraries: 11. Per capita: one branch library per 13,391 persons.

Buffalo: Current population, 292648. City branch libraries: 15. Per capita library service: one branch library per 19,510 persons.

This is using 2000 Census figures, which are almost certainly lower five years later. But even if we assume that each city has lost 10,000 people, you still get a wide disparity: Syracuse, a city almost exactly half the size of Buffalo, still serves fewer people per capita with its libraries than does Buffalo. So why, in all the talk about what to do about Buffalo's supposedly bloated library system (which might not even be as bloated as we're often led to believe), do we never ask what Syracuse and Onondaga County are doing right in managing their library system?

The answer may lie, in part, with all of the member libraries outside the City of Buffalo. Looking at just one example: the South Cheektowaga Library and the Julia Reinstein Library, both in Cheektowaga. Here's the map of where these two libraries reside:

The South Cheektowaga Library is at the far left, where the little Google Maps marker is. The Reinstein library is at the right, on Losson Road, right about where I placed that italic 'X'. And the distance between the two, spanned on this map? About three miles. Depending on traffic and red lights, these two libraries are within ten minutes of one another. Two branch libraries that close might make sense in the densely populated City of Buffalo, but not out in the suburbs. I suspect that this kind of thing occurs quite a bit in the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library system. I'm loath to close libraries, but given its proximity to the fairly new Reinstein Library, it seems to me that the South Cheektowaga library may be expendable.

It would also be helpful, in this debate, if a clearer picture could be had of just how the whole B&ECPL system is funded. Does the County fund the whole thing? No -- but what roles do the constituent towns and municipalities play? Could we have the benefits of a shared-collection, county-wide system -- and believe me, those benefits are legion -- while streamlining its operation? These questions don't seem to come up. It's "Close two-fifths of the system or shutter the whole thing!"

No wonder nothing ever gets done around here. I'm not sure what I'm proposing here, if I'm proposing anything at all. But I don't much like the scorched-earth kinds of policies that are currently the only policies being discussed.

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