by Amy Barlow
Providence Community Libraries (PCL), a private not-for-profit branch system with nine location in Providence, RI, is outraged over the city’s decision to cut 10% of its funding. The city’s budget meeting has been postponed several times, but should take place tonight. As a radical coping strategy, PCL is considering the closure of all library branches for an entire month (July, September, or December/January holiday season), in the event that the city passes the budget, as is. Instead of limiting hours during the day, or shaving days from the week, it is hoped that a drastic closure plan, during one of the busiest months, will cause public uproar and demonstrate the value of the branches in the communities that they serve.
I spoke with PCL’s Andria Tieman, an Adult Services Librarian, about the budget shortfall.
- Andria, briefly summarize how the city’s fiscal decisions will impact the operation of Providence Community Libraries.
Andria: The reduction of PCL’s budget by 10% represents a reduction of $355,000 for a library that already operates on a shoestring budget. Last year’s annual report shows that the bulk of our money was spent on staffing the libraries with little else for materials purchasing or any extras. All of our media collections are donated materials. Presently, according to a study funded by Broadband Rhode Island, 30% of Rhode Islanders lack basic computer skills. Add to that the high unemployment rate in the state, and that means we need libraries more than ever, but a 10% reduction in services would force libraries to slash hours and lay off staff.
Programming and continuing education is desperately needed by library users. But, it requires a combination of resources. Last month alone, the Rochambeau Library (one of nine PCL locations) had 99 cultural and educational programs that were free of charge and open to all. PCL is also partnering with the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training to help job-seekers learn how to file unemployment online and search for work. The DLT is ceasing all phone filing and moving to a strictly online platform, so the burden of helping people with limited skills file falls upon the libraries and library staff.
All these services become reduced when the budget is cut simply because we won’t be able to keep the libraries open the hours that people need. As it is, the larger libraries in the PCL system–Mount Pleasant, Rochambeau and Knight Memorial are only open 36 hours a week, and Knight Memorial frequently closes early in the summer due to a lack of air conditioning. The smaller six libraries are only open 24 hours a week, mostly to accommodate children after school.
- What strategies have been discussed as ways to deal with the budget shortfall?
Andria: We’ve been trying to mobilize our patron base and ask them to speak to their city councilperson on behalf of the library. We’ve been attending city budget meetings and speaking out as library staff, board members, and users. Our business director, library director and other staff have got out of their way from the beginning of the PCL organization to forge relationships with people in city hall and to let them know what we do with our funding and how much we give back to the community with the little we receive. When PCL was established in 2006, it was founded as an organization that was determined to give back as much as possible to the poorest communities in the city–the ones who need the library most. We’ve kept those in city government apprised of all our accomplishments along the way, and have not been shy about reminding them as we face the budget shortfall.
- What roles can librarians play as advocates in these situations?
Andria: Librarians are also library users and they can certainly be more outspoken about library programs, community outreach and just being a presence in the community–sometimes outside of the library, if they’re able to get away. Librarians also need to establish more of an online presence instead of just reaching out to the people who come into the library every day. More and more library users, myself included, treat the library as a place to merely pick up books that they reserved online. Putting a poster in the window doesn’t often lure these people in the way a blog, facebook page, or frequently updated website may. People don’t have time to wander by the library and see what’s going on, the library needs to be there when people are planning out their free time–usually when they’re farting around on facebook.
Andria Tieman presently works as Adult Services Librarian at Providence Community Library and filling in as Reference Librarian at Bryant University. She holds an MFA and MLIS, and is an avid blogger for several websites, including The Providence Daily Dose, where she provides readers with updates about PCL. She has also served as Communications Committee Co-Chair of Rhode Island Library Association since 2009.