Closing the Books

Last week's Public Officials of the Year awards dinner was, as always, a celebratory event. But seeing Chicago Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey (one of our ...
by | November 20, 2006

Library_closed_1 Last week's Public Officials of the Year awards dinner was, as always, a celebratory event.

But seeing Chicago Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey (one of our nine honorees) recognized for revamping the Windy City's vast network of neighborhood branches was ironically juxtaposed with having just learned something distressing  about my hometown library system: While a library renaissance is an increasingly familiar phenomenon in dozens of U.S. cities, Minneapolis is still essentially in the Dark Ages.

To its credit, the Star Tribune has been on top of this situation, but my occasional visits to the paper's Web site hadn't alerted me to what's been going on there since May, when the city marked the grand opening of its new Central Library, designed by Cesar Pelli.

The news is bad and sad for 2007. Two weeks ago, the Library Board of Trustees voted to shut down three of its 14 branches and reduce the hours at other locations, including the main library, which would be closed on Mondays.

The fiscal crisis has been a long time in the making and caused by many factors: A property-tax increase voters approved back in 2000 for library construction and renovation failed to address the issue of operating costs; state aid to local governments, which had provided nearly half of the library system's budget, was slashed in 2003; and while the independent, elected Library Board oversees expenditures, it doesn't have revenue-raising authority and the mayor and city council have the final say on the budget. "It's just an archaic structure and it's no longer serving the city," said Anita Duckor, the board president.

At this point, every option is on the table when it comes to future governance and funding. "Security requires a larger tax base," the Star Tribune recently noted, "and the obvious one lies in Hennepin County," which has a thriving library program.

In fact, Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin last week announced the formation of a panel to study the Minneapolis library system's financial problems and the possibility of a merger between the two systems. I plan to stay tuned.

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