Unripe library merger bears bitter bookmobile fruit


Eight months into a merger that was sold as a bailout of Minneapolis’ library system, a budget hole threatens to swallow Hennepin County’s bookmobile and other library services. That’s got newspaper editorialists wringing hands that are still smarting from merger backslaps, and library leaders ready to wring cash from naming rights—something St. Paul’s already doing this week at Midway Stadium.

As the Minnesota Independent reported a month ago, the Hennepin County Library is constructing a raft of wholesale service cuts meant to balance a budget that got swamped in the wake of the merger with the Minneapolis Public Library. Now the Star Tribune—a merger cheerleader—is highlighting the county’s imperiled Readmobile service in its news and editorial pages. It’s a story that was just as worthy of sobs two years ago when Minneapolis quietly put its own bookmobile on blocks.

But as the Strib’s own online reader-commenters are quick to point out, today’s editorial bemoans what the bookmobile’s loss would mean to the “littlest library patrons,” and scolds library staff for the current situation: “One-time merger-related costs are running higher than expected—and for that, administrators must shoulder responsibility.”

This from an editorial page that so fervently urged a hurried merger, it couldn’t hardly wait for “expected library board, city, county and legislative approval in a rapid-fire series of votes.” It also could find room for words of caution from two Minneapolis elected officials, whose op-ed on the subject, rejected last year by the Strib, ran instead in The Bridge neighborhood newspaper.

“If this is a good idea now, it will still be a good idea six months or a year from now,” wrote (delete stray characters) Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon and Minneapolis Library Board Trustee Laura Waterman Wittstock, referring to a voter referendum on the merger mandated by state law but skirted by special legislative action. “If it is a bad idea, then we need time to consider the issues involved and make this bad idea better.”

Allowing citizens—and not only VIPs on blue-ribbon commissions—to review the libraries’ ledgers and vote on the merger might have put the mobile library service in a better place today. The Strib doesn’t do the math but supplies the latest numbers: two Readmobiles making 1,080 stops per year serve about 1.5 patrons per stop (in 2007) at a cost of $136 per patron (in 2009).

One of those VIPs told the Strib that getting cash from naming rights “would be a pretty easy sell.” By apparent coincidence, that remark appeared on a news page just above a display ad for St. Paul Saints games at “Skinny Water Park”—otherwise known as Midway Stadium but rechristened for this week only as part of a deal with a bottled-water company. St. Paul, which owns the ballpark, signed off on the deal, the Strib said, although in an email to MnIndy, St. Paul Director of Parks and Recreation Bob Bierscheid told MnIndy it’s only “a promotional marketing activity. No real name change has taken place.”