Sustaining branch libraries in changing times

West Side Community Branch Library - photo by Manchester Library

The mayor and aldermen continue to wrangle over a budget for the city.  Meanwhile, residents and students on the West Side and seniors across the city await a decision on whether funding will be restored for the West Side Community Branch Library, or whether it will be shuttered, as mentioned on LivableMHT back in March.

The aldermen have until the June 9 to approve a budget, or the mayor’s proposal–with a 3.37% increase in local property taxes but drastic cuts from the state and federal levels resulting in overall cuts to transit, libraries, schools and other areas critical to a vibrant community–will go into effect July 1.  Obviously, structural changes at the state level (and allowing greater flexibility at the municipal level) are needed to ensure more reliable revenues and efficiency, and for the city and region to be strong, competitive and attractive places to live, visit, study and work in the future.  The debate over what those changes should entail are a huge topic in themselves, and maybe better left to those with a broader understanding of municipal finance and governmental structure in New Hampshire.

Going forward, though, there are some interesting solutions being employed in other cities to adapt the services and amenities that make a city great to the changes in technology and lifestyle, as well as the economy and demographics.

One such example is the Providence Community Libraries, a non-profit created in July 2009 in response to the Providence Public Library’s plan to close five of that city’s nine branch libraries and reduce service systemwide.  While the PCL receives public support through taxes similar to any other public library, it also accepts private donations and is run as a private, non-profit organization.  Encouragingly, their first annual report claims a savings of $3 million.  It’s impossible to say if a similar arrangement would be possible or desirable in Manchester, or what kind of savings if any it might be able to accomplish, but the PCL represents an innovative, community-led response to a local problem, and one that has ensured the continuation and perhaps even expansion of a vital civic resource.

Manchester’s City Library and its administration seem to have much greater public support than the Providence Public Library did two years ago, and while the West Side branch is threatened, the overall budget doesn’t seem quite as dire.  If an independent, community group is needed to support the library system in the future, it seems likely that it could supplement rather than replace the City Library in Manchester.  Perhaps the Manchester City Library Foundation could somehow be strengthened and expanded to assume a stronger supporting role.

Unlike Manchester, Providence’s branch libraries are spread throughout the city, creating more of a shared incentive to support the branches.  If structural funding changes don’t happen or if the City is unable to sustain the current library system in the future, there’s always a chance that a more focused community group could rally around the West Side branch library.  It would be easier, though, to build support if the library system was more geographically balanced, with a central main library and smaller branches throughout the city.

In a city as diverse and with as many dense neighborhoods as Manchester, even small branch libraries serve as an important resource–not just as a place to read and borrow books, but for students to study, children to spend time after school, residents to look for jobs, newcomers to learn English, and community members to gather.  Strong, local libraries are good for the community, and for the economy.

Inside West Side library - photo by Manchester Library

It’s possible, especially with community support and funding, that a handful of smaller branch libraries could go into vacant storefronts, or existing community centers and schools in city center neighborhoods such as the Hollow, Somerville and the North End, among other areas, especially in the city’s neighborhood centers or areas targeted for redevelopment.  These branches would be especially useful in neighborhoods not within walking distance of either the current main library or West Side branch.  Landlords or developers could be given incentives for hosting the branches at reduced rents or incorporating them into new projects in areas where a branch would be suitable.

These new, smaller branches could, perhaps, have just a small inventory on-hand, but provide free access to computers, periodicals and a few volumes particularly pertinent to the local neighborhood, in addition to providing a place within walking distance of many residents to drop books and request pick-ups, which could be efficiently delivered from the main branch.  Just as important, these spots could provide a vital, small community gathering spot.  In an age when public gathering space and internet access is often more immediately critical than stacks of books, the branches could be low-budget, relatively bare-bones, but inviting and useful libraries, while spreading the benefits and support of local branches throughout the city.

Obviously, this could all happen without requiring a private, community group, but with the budget situation as it is and with an uncertain funding future across the board, that doesn’t seem likely.  LivableMHT is deeply skeptical of suggestions of privatizing public services or amenities, but there’s a good deal of merit to many public-private partnerships; and as the economy and demographics continue to evolve, it might be necessary to explore how community-based, non-profit organizations can help support and enhance those publics institutions that make Manchester an attractive, livable city for current and future residents.

There may be better ideas for improving and sustaining the city’s library system; this is just one, very rough idea.  Despite the growing prevalence of e-readers and wi-fi, and the demographic and economic changes of late, libraries are remain important community assets, and there needs to be some discussion about how to sustainably fund, adapt and, yes, expand them to meet future needs.

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