Stop the Presses: Appreciating the Library


By Mike kroll


Not too long ago someone came up to me (apparently knowing I am a Galesburg Public Library trustee) unhappy that we were talking about the possibility of constructing a new library and asked me why a town like ours even needs a library in the 21st century. After all, who reads books anymore and can't you learn almost anything you need from either the Internet or 500-channel television?

At first I was more than a little bit put upon to hear these comments for I truly love our library, and not just ours in Galesburg but libraries in many other cities I visit. But the fact is these feelings are apparently shared by too many of our neighbors. Simply pointing out this misjudgment to people who are not themselves library users does not adequately address the issue. Those of us who love and appreciate libraries must not debate our critics but rather entice them into the library. Once one really samples all that a good library has to offer it becomes hard not to appreciate a library and its contributions to the quality of our lives.

Let us take the Galesburg Public Library as an example.

This is a very different place from the grand 1902 Carnegie Library that once stood on the site of our present Library. The Carnegie Library was a depository of the written word where a select few went to occasionally check out a book or read a magazine but little else. As impressive as the building was it was also cold and imposing and hardly encouraged one to loiter about. In fact I have been told the tables and chairs were designed to discourage sitting to read recreationally. Like many libraries of the past it was seen by many as a necessary symbol that the community respected knowledge and learning even if only a small fraction made any real use of the facility. In short, it was more a monument than a learning destination.

When that building burned down in 1958 local officials were publicly horrified at its loss but all too soon it became clear where the Library stood compared to other community priorities. To save money the building was woefully under-insured and once it was lost there was very little community angst that poor planning made replacing the Library problematic at best. Whatever strong community anger existed was focused upon the magnitude of the City's deficient water system that denied fire fighters sufficient water pressure to battle the Library blaze.

While our former city leaders demonstrated foresight in embarking on the Oquawka pipeline replacing the Library was a much lower priority in terms of either civic effort or funds. Forty-five years ago this month a very humble replacement Library was dedicated that has morphed over the years into the facility you find today at 40 East Simmons Street. Many corners were cut to make due with the inadequate funds that were available but a dedicated group of concerned citizens joined with the Library Board of Trustees to rebuild. The result was a building style I can only describe as 1960's era service station-esque. Just one example of penny-wise and pound foolish cost cutting is the fact that the current structure was designed such that the stacks across the center rear of the Library ARE the structural support for the second floor above! The large meeting room upstairs could never be pressed into service as room for more books because of the limited load that can be carried by these first floor book shelves. Six years later the building was enlarged to accommodate a children's room and in 1996 the most recent Library expansion was completed.

One thing remained constant since well before the Carnegie building burned, library operational funding was barely adequate to maintain the collection and sort-of maintain the building. Then as now Library staff were under-paid but the Library Board accepted the status quo and never made waves. Settling for inadequate funding had become an annual event for the Galesburg Public Library. When costs rose the Library Board held down staff pay and purchased fewer books or magazines. It is only through the unselfish dedication of many long-time staff that the Library has been able to maintain for so long with so little funding.

To illustrate the Library salary situation consider that in 2006 a full-time professional librarian at the Galesburg Public Library earns an average of $14  per hour or less than $30,000 annually. This includes staff ranging from 6-21 years of experience. In Illinois cities of comparable size the mean hourly salary for the same position is about $21 or one-third higher. As local staff retire it will become increasingly difficult to compete in the employment marketplace for their replacements.

In recent years the Galesburg Public Library has grown in usage and range of services despite essentially flat revenue growth. It is expected that the Library will surpass 285,000 visitors this year; up from 279,000 last year. The Library has become a key community resource attracting more visitors than almost any other local public facility. The organizers of the Railroad Hall of Fame would be ecstatic to obtain and maintain attendance figures like these once open but the Library does it today with little or no hype! The reason is simple, the Library is more than a place to check out a book.

The Library has become so successful because it serves the community well. With the closing of Maytag, Butler and other large employers the Library has become an invaluable resource for the unemployed or underemployed looking to recover. With the closing of the Educational Technology Center the Library has become the only source of free, publicly available computer and Internet access for thousands of citizens who have no other way to use a computer. With more and more families dependent upon working multiple jobs to make ends meet the Library has become a safe refuge for latch-key children. As more and more of our neighbors commute to work the demand for books on tape and cd-rom has exploded. For the hundreds of older adults struggling to reinvent themselves into middle-age employability the Library has become an irreplaceable resource. In so many ways the Library is one of Galesburg's most important yet overlooked quality of life assets.

The dedicated staff of the Galesburg Public Library answer tens of thousands of questions every year at the reference desk. They help people find the materials they need to inform, educate or entertain themselves. And they offer countless public programs aimed across the age ranges from story time for toddlers to activities for seniors and everyone in between. The Library is so much more than just a place to check out a book but we mustn't take this for granted. The rate of return on Galesburg's investment in the Library is demonstrably higher than almost any other economic development investment the city can make.

Unlike the City itself which has a diverse revenue base, the Library gets the vast majority of its revenue from property taxes alone. Beyond property taxes the only other money that is received by the Library are grants and gifts from generous patrons. For the current budget year the Galesburg Public Library received $1,097,500 in property taxes or less than $32 per city resident (revenue from all other sources added $185,000). What the Library Board requested for the 2007 levy was $1,193,877 or about $34.60 per resident.

This requested $96,377 property tax increase is what prompted Galesburg Finance Director Gloria Osborne and City Manager Gary Goddard to ignore the budget submitted by the Library Board and replace it with Goddard's own Library budget when the document was presented to the City Council. Goddard and Osborne repeatedly ignored protests by the Library Board as they did their best to paint the Library Board as financially irresponsible. In Goddard's Library budget passed Monday night the Library will only get $1,128,815 ($65,062 less than requested) in property taxes but Library expenditures are only about $16,000 less than the budget presented by the Library Board. The difference is supposed to be made up by raiding the earnings accumulated from the gifts and bequests to the Library by our patrons.

Just one year ago there was a growing feeling within the Library Board that the time may soon be upon us to ask the citizens of Galesburg to support construction of a new and more functional Library. Thanks to constant penny pinching and the generosity of the Library's many friends the Board of Trustees have worked to balance use of gifts as both a way to enhance the Library experience for our patrons and to build an endowment for the Library's future. We all know that saving money just might be one of the hardest things to do in today's economy but it is also the most prudent course if we are one day to fulfill the dream of replacing our current Library. It is for these reasons that the Galesburg Library Board will not eat its seed corn by spending down either the principle or earnings from these gifts.

The difference in dollars may not seem huge but the impact on the Library will be. The Library Board of Trustees has unanimously voted NOT to spend either the principle or interest from these gifts to cover standard operating expenses and to fulfill the commitment made to Library staff to a multi-year process of raising salaries to approximate those of staff in comparable libraries. These two commitments by the Library Board will mean that the revenue shortfall will need to be offset by reductions in operating costs. Since many of these operating costs cannot reasonably be reduced the result will necessarily be reductions in hours and the amount of new books, magazines and audio-video materials purchased in 2007.

My fellow Library trustees and I know well that these cuts will be a hardship for many loyal Library patrons and for that I apologize. I hope this all-too-personal column has helped make clear why these actions are both necessary and unavoidable under the circumstances.  There is no doubt in my mind that the process of planning and presenting next year's Library budget to the Galesburg City Council will be very different; and hopefully so too will the result. Please continue to use and support the Galesburg Public Library.