THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


THE BIBLIO FILES: THE FUTURE OF PROVIDENCE'S NEIGHBORHOOD LIBRARIES

by by Katie Okamoto

illustration by by Rebecca Staley

The fate of Providence's neighborhood libraries will be decided in less than a week. Currently, the Central Library in Downcity and its nine branches are run by a private non-profit, the Providence Public Library (PPL), using a combination of city and state funding and private donations. But for a number of years, government funding has remained level while operation costs have increased, causing PPL to deficit spend from its endowment--this year, to the tune of $1.5 million. PPL now claims that to balance its budget, it can only afford to run the Central Library and the four largest branches: Rochambeau, Mt. Pleasant, Knight Memorial and South Providence.

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This Sunday, the City of Providence will announce whether it accepts PPL's plan to drop the other five branches in July. Though PPL would no longer run these facilities, it hopes they will be funded by other institutions and continue to operate as community centers serving many of the same functions. So far, no institutions have volunteered. If the City rejects the plan, PPL will continue to run the Central Library, while a brand new non-profit--the Providence Community Library--will step in to run the nine branches independently. The Community Library also proposes significant changes to the system's board leadership to increase "community participation, a sense of community and transparency," according to Community Library President Marcus Mitchell told the Independent.
The Community Library's plan inspires hope among some community members who fear branch closings under PPL. Some feel slighted by PPL's plan, which retains the most heavily used branches but drops Olneyville, Wanskuk, Fox Point, Smith Hill and Washington Park--all in lower-income neighborhoods far from the Central Library. But others are skeptical about the viability of the Community Library's plan. PPL has run the city's public library system for more than 130 years. By comparison, they argue, the less than one-year-old Community Library lacks essential practical experience.

CH-Ch-ch-changes

Library politics in Providence have been a hot issue since at least the mid-90s, when PPL first suggested cutting branches to slash costs. In 2004, community members formed the Library Reform Group to prevent reductions in hours and staff at the Central Library. That attempt was unsuccessful, but according to Community Library co-founder Patricia Raub, the experience suggested that PPL's decision-making process needed to better reflect community needs. Chaired by Raub, the Library Reform Group began pushing for PPL meetings to be made open to the public--with success--and for adding public representatives to the Board of Trustees--without success.
Linda Kushner, a RI State representative from 1982 to 1994 and President of the Friends of the Rochambeau Branch Library from 2003 to 2005, said she was "concerned" that PPL repeatedly considered dropping branch libraries as an answer to its recurring financial troubles. "They have been more concerned with running the Central Library and preserving their endowment than serving the people of Providence," she told the Independent.
This year, an opportunity for administrative change presented itself when, after several years of PPL's deficit-spending, Providence demanded that PPL submit a financial plan for city approval. Included in that demand was the provision that if the city found the plan unsatisfactory, it would transfer financial support for branch services to another entity. Members of the Library Reform Group and other concerned citizens saw a chance for greater influence and founded the Providence Community Library.
"We started working on a plan over the summer and showed it to other library directors to make sure we were on the right track, but we kept it to ourselves until December hoping [PPL would] come up with a Sustainable Plan acceptable to everybody," said Raub. "When they didn't, [Community Library President] Marcus Mitchell stood up and said we were ready to take over all nine branches."
Payin' the cost to be the boss
Since December, both organizations have worked separately with the City Council and the Mayor's Office, each trying to convince the city that its plan is the more viable.
Though the Community Library criticizes PPL for unnecessarily cutting branches from its budget, PPL Board of Trustees Chair William Simmons says it is the trustees' responsibility to ensure the institution's long-term existence. His reply to criticism that PPL is overly concerned with preserving its endowment: "Absurd." "You increase the endowment to run a better institution in perpetuity," he told the Independent.
Excepting the cost of running the Central Library, PPL branch services currently operate with $3.5 million supplied by the city and $750,000 from the State, with extra money coming from 6 percent of unrestricted donations (the rest supplements PPL's endowment). The Community Library claims it can run the nine branches with $2 million less by reducing the number of top administrators and trimming the salaries of those that remain "to a level commensurate with the salary level of public library administrators in other cities the size of Providence," as its website puts it. (According to the American Library Association's 2002 figures, PPL Director Dale Thompson earned more than did the Providence mayor and the Rhode Island governor, respectively). The Community Library stresses that under its plan, no branch employee positions will be cut.
However, Tonia Mason, PPL's marketing director, said she was not "totally sure" what the Community Library considers expendable administrators. "We have three administrators in this entire system right now: the director and two assistant directors overseeing all operations, and then some key department heads," she said. According to Mason, PPL's plan provides for the highest quality service with the funds available: "We've been streamlining for ten years. There's no more to streamline if we're going to maintain the same level of service."
Money, love and change
Besides streamlining, the Providence Community Library plans to meet its budget by fundraising more aggressively than PPL has, and by applying for federal grant money. This may prove difficult given the state of the economy; non-profits have historically faced fundraising challenges when personal and philanthropic budgets tighten, and the new group hopes to raise $500,000.
Despite the unfavorable economic climate, Ellen Schwartz, who brings 25 years of non-profit accounting experience to the Community Library Board, remains confident the group will raise sufficient funds. "Libraries are traditionally very easy to get people to donate to," Schwartz said, adding that individuals have already made unsolicited offers.
"We're well aware that this isn't the best time to start a new library, but we're more creative and more anxious and more determined than the PPL, based on their track record," Raub said. "Even if we don't raise as much money as we hope to, we'll be better off than the PPL under the same circumstances."
But PPL Marketing Director Mason is skeptical about the new group's ability to rely on fundraising for $500,000 each year. She defended the PPL's fundraising efforts, saying, "The PPL is a 130-year old not-for-profit organization that has done an incredible amount of fundraising over the course of its history."
Nonetheless, Mitchell said the Community Library's "numbers are solid." The projected budget is considered feasible by librarians around New England.
Talk of the town
The PPL Board of Trustees weighed several possible options before deciding to cut the five smallest branches from its budget, including whether it would make sense to close the Central Library instead. When PPL decided it could only afford the four regional branches, many community members protested that residents of lower-income neighborhoods would lose access to important resources like Internet access--nowadays required to find jobs, register for charity programs, apply to colleges and obtain scholarships.
Mason says the criticism is unfair. "It's awfully hard to tell somebody who's a smaller group of people, 'Your numbers don't count.' That's not the point here," she said. "But when trying to maximize the amount of service and access, one of the critical factors is to look at where the most usage does occur."
PPL Chair Simmons defended the choice, saying the plan had incorrectly become "an argument of whether we keep the branches open or close them."
Simmons hopes that community collaboration with other institutions in Providence will allow the five small branches to be converted into community centers that would retain their current functions. He envisions a "learning city," in which the centers would be supported by community organizations, museums and universities. But as Community Library members have pointed out, so far no institutions have volunteered to fill that role.
For some, PCL's pledge to keep all branches open is reason enough to get behind the new proposal. Matthew Lawrence, a Providence citizen who started Not About the Buildings, a non-profit for library lovers, described the importance of the Fox Point Library, one of the branches that could be closed: "The Fox Point Library is downstairs from the Boys and Girls Club for the East Side, across the street from an elementary school and across from a senior citizen high-rise. All those people are in the library all the time. If you go in the early afternoon there are always senior citizens, and if you go in the later afternoon there's tons of kids."
A Fox Point librarian who requested anonymity said, "I don't think turning [the Fox Point Library] into a community center is really the answer....We love the community, and we want to stay here. So whatever way that can be done, we're hopeful that that can happen."
Community Library co-founder Schwartz, who lives in Washington Park--where the branch library has been closed for maintenance since 2006, causing some controversy--said, "In my neighborhood, it's the only space where kids can go without being signed up and be safe." Under PCL's plan, the Washington Park branch would be reopened.
According to Mitchell, feedback about the Community Library proposal has been "tremendously positive and supportive" and has included phone calls from librarians in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. "Everywhere, people come up to me on the street.... People somehow manage to get my telephone number, asking me about this, and I welcome that feedback."
Wrapped up in books
The Community Library has been hosting discussion forums at the branch libraries to present its plan and allow citizens, City Council members and PPL members to raise concerns.
"In these times, with limited resources, the only thing we can do is all come together, not only with our physical resources, but also our mental and intellectual resources," said Community Library President Mitchell. "We're not in competition with PPL, but these ideas that the Community Library puts forward have all been offered in the past to PPL, and they've rejected them. They didn't want community participation, they didn't want to seek other funders, they didn't look to think out of the box."
Remarkably, at a time when the City of Providence has made cuts in other areas, library funding has not fallen. "I want to do everything we can to ensure that the branches stay open," City Council President Peter Mancini told the Independent, "and I'm sure most of the Council people feel the same way. [The Community Library plan] may be one way, but we still need to get all the information. There are a lot of questions."
Simmons said that if Providence transfers the branches to the Community Library, PPL would focus on expanding the Central Library's programs in more creative ways. He warned, however, that Providence must be ready in the event that "there have been some misjudgments in the calculations of what [the Community Library] is capable of doing with the resources they say they will have."
There is little doubt that both Simmons and Mitchell, despite their disagreements, believe libraries are essential to a thriving city. "You walk into a library, and you feel different," said Simmons. "It's something really, really precious."
But Mitchell went further: "President Obama was a library baby."
'Nuff said.

Win KATIE OKAMOTO B'09.5's heart at the book sale bag day.

For more information about the Providence library plans, visit providencecommunitylibrary.org and www.provlib.org.