Residents, officials discuss how to help community libraries


Less staff. Shorter hours. Older collections.

Northeast library patrons who’ve been dismayed, recently, by hours and services cuts at Pierre Bottineau and Northeast Community libraries are in for more bad news.

Even though—thanks to a 2000 city-wide referendum—the new downtown Central Library opens next month and community libraries are getting makeovers, the system itself is suffering.

The problem? According to library officials, those precious referendum dollars can be used only for construction. Meanwhile, operating dollars are shrinking.

“At a community library you might expect a collection to be five years old or less,” said Colin Hamilton, executive director of the Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library. “But most are 10, 15 or even 20 years old.”
Hamilton has been busy in recent weeks trying to educate the public about the library’s challenges.

On April 5, he and Diane Loeffler, State Representative and Windom Park Neighborhood resident, hosted a forum at Northeast Community Library titled, “Open Libraries for Everyone.”

They said funds for the Minneapolis Public Library have been cut almost $3 million since 2003, through state and city budget cuts and a city funding formula that distributes local government aid (LGA) and property tax money to the city, parks and libraries.

Briefly put, the library—unlike the city and parks—is mainly funded through LGA, and that fund is shrinking. In fact, it will likely decrease 1.5 percent between 2003 and 2008.

“We have laid off a quarter of the staff and cut hours 25 percent. We have the worst hours of any major library system in the country,” Hamilton said. “What terrifies us is that this is going to get worse. Part of the way we’ve been able to operate is that three [libraries] have been closed: North Regional, East Lake, and [downtown] Central. There is no additional money for when they reopen. It has to come out of the shared budget that exists. The library budget is flat until 2009, when it takes a dip.”

Hamilton added, “I don’t want to make light of what has happened to [funding for] the city, the parks and the police. It’s all hard. But the long-term trend of what’s happening in the city is to chronically underfund the library.”
He said that community activists have done “wonderful things” in working to keep libraries open. “Southeast probably would be closed except for them, also Franklin. We’ve seen people come together for the [downtown] Central Library in a way that’s never really been done in the past.” He added, too, that the library has received some private donations and is working to raise more private funds.

But, Loeffler said, “If you do too much fund raising, you get into issues of city-wide equity. I don’t know if the quality of your service should be based on whether or not your community can raise money.”

The downtown Central Library has a different type of collection than the community libraries or the Hennepin County libraries, which tend to focus more on popular literature, she added. “It’s a lot more expensive to buy non-fiction and research books, than it is to buy the popular murder mystery everyone wants to get their hands on. The downtown library should have been declared a state research library.”

Loeffler said that now, it is hard to drum up sympathy for the Minneapolis Public Library’s plight, because everybody is looking at the new downtown building. “You hired a world class architect. The building has lots of open space, which costs more for heating and cooling. The empathy factor is not there for the building itself, but it might be there for the research and [specialized] types of collections. Outstate, they think we have the Taj Mahal and mini Taj Mahals in the community. The reality is that small town libraries have better hours and more computers.

“Here [at Northeast] kids are standing in line for two and a half hours to get half an hours’ research time,” Loeffler said. “If you’re a student that’s nothing, [compared to how much time you need] for research. We don’t tell our [library’s] story very well in City Hall. We don’t get all the press. Once the downtown library opens, everybody will think we have best library in the state.”

Loeffler brought up another issue: inflation, and its adverse effect on the referendum dollars. “We’re in a situation now where inflation has eroded those dollars. The last one on the list gets the least. Northeast is one of the last, even though it’s number five [out of 14] in the system on usage.”

“We need to view the library more as an educational institution,” Loeffler added, “not just a place where people go to get a book. The library has not done a good job of building its constituency base. It can’t be about us versus them.”

She reminded the group that people do care about their libraries. “The referendum passed on a 70 percent yes vote. No school referendum has ever passed that high.”

Hamilton said that some Minneapolis City Council members told him that they were surprised, after library hours and services were cut last year, that they hadn’t heard from more people about it.

But Loeffler said maybe the library supporters focus their attention on the wrong people. “People don’t talk about libraries like they do about parks. [When the cuts were happening], we focused all our attention on the library board and didn’t think about council members. [Another problem is that] people who have time to interact with politicians tend to have higher economic backgrounds; they also are the people who go to Barnes and Noble. They have cars. If they can’t remember when their library is open, they’ll just go to [Hennepin County Libraries such as] Ridgedale, Brookdale, St. Anthony Village. People who don’t have the resources or the mobility cross their fingers and hope that when they need to go, the library will be open.”

Loeffler added, “Some people said, ‘You’ve got the new library at Pierre Bottineau, do you need Northeast? But Bottineau’s not on the bus line. This one is within two miles of every house in Northeast.” (The Northeast Library is at 22nd and Central avenues; Bottineau is at Marshall and Broadway streets NE.)

Hamilton said library staff estimates the system will need another $6 million to $10 million a year to stay afloat. “What we can do in the community is make it a priority. You don’t have to solve the problem yourself. But make more noise. Talk to everyone you know.”

One woman in the audience asked, “How do you answer politicians when they say, ‘Would you rather have a library or more police?’ Another woman answered, “One reason we need more police is because we don’t have enough libraries. We have to have this resource.”

Loeffler recommended that supporters send politicians hand-written notes. “Send a postcard, tell your own story about how the cuts have affected you. That’s what gets our attention.”

Last week, the Northeaster asked Cecile Bedor, MPL’s director of partnerships and development, about the library renovation schedule and the budget. She said Sumner (in North Minneapolis), Franklin and Linden Hills (South Minneapolis) and Pierre Bottineau (Northeast) have been done. North Regional (North)—with a $4 million budget—and East Lake (South) are under construction and will open in 2007. Next on the list to be done are Roosevelt (South) and Southeast; both have $3 million renovation budgets. Then Webber Park, in Camden, a smaller library with a smaller budget of $1.5 million.

Northeast and Nokomis, with budgets of $3 million each, will be renovated after the other five libraries are finished.

Finally, Walker, Hosmer and Washburn each have $500,000 earmarked for upgrades; they have already undergone renovations.

Bedor said the details of Northeast’s renovation haven’t been decided, yet. “The scope of work is developed through a community participation process.” The library hosts the meetings, and the architect takes the recommendations into consideration in the design phase.

“We can say general things about the scope, but it’s all redefined when we get going on the project. The schedule has been to work on two projects at a time. This summer, we’ll begin plans for Roosevelt and Southeast.” (Renovation typically takes about two years, she said.)

When asked how inflation will affect future construction, Bedor said, “Of course, those budgets are set, and there isn’t more referendum money. Whatever was set in 2000 and 2001, those are our budgets. Half a million dollars in 2010 won’t buy as much as it does today. Hopefully, the library will be successful in securing more capital funds from a variety of private sources. They had good participation from neighborhood organizations on North Regional library.

“We do as much as we can with those dollars, doing things to meet the community’s needs and also be helpful to the library, in terms of being energy efficient, such things as lighting, heating and air conditioning. We try to ensure that something like a staff work room will be efficiently designed in terms of how they move about. Those kinds of things are included in our projects,” Bedor added.

For information about the current state of the Minneapolis Public Library, call 612-630-6170 or check the Friends’ Web site,