A Minneapolis library system that meets our needs today and tomorrow

Minneapolis has long had one of the best urban library systems in America. We have a tremendous 3.2 million-item collection and usage rates that are the envy of many. But for more than a dozen years, it has been clear that the quality of our library system has been seriously jeopardized by the physical infrastructure of our library buildings.

Overcrowding is the norm. At the Central Library, the problem was so severe that only 15 percent of the collection was accessible on public shelves. At the community libraries, we have not been able to add nearly enough computers and Internet workstations to keep up with public demands.

These and other concerns led to the 2000 Library Referendum, which was approved by 67 percent of voters and carried 143 out of 145 precincts. The referendum will raise $140 million for capital improvements, including $110 million for a new Central Library and $30 million for capital improvements. The Library Board and the Friends of the Library are working to raise an additional $15 million in private funds.

It should be a wonderful story, but there is a hitch. Over the past couple years, cities and states nationwide have struggled with rising budget deficits. Locally, our mayor and Council have chosen to manage the deficit by tightly controlling spending, and libraries, schools, parks and city departments are all tightening their belts. In the Library's case, this means a $1.5 million cut from our requested 2003 budget.

Faced with very tough decisions, the Library Trustees held community meetings across Minneapolis to present various cost-saving measures to residents for feedback. The Library's objective was to identify the least painful cuts. Ultimately, the Library Board decided to: leave 18 staff positions vacant; reduce hours at East Lake, North Regional, Walker and Washburn Libraries; close the entire system for a one-week period; and close all libraries on additional holidays.

Private support, primarily through the Friends of the Library, will help minimize the impact of these cuts. Last year, The Friends provided the Library with nearly $1 million in grants and services. We intend to use the new Central Library Capital Campaign as an opportunity to strengthen our fundraising arm so we are able to provide significantly expanded private support in the future.

At several of the community meetings, residents asked if the Library could solve its budget shortfall by using referendum funds for operating purposes. The simplest answer is no -- the terms of the referendum restrict its funds to capital purposes. But it is also true that redirecting dollars from capital funds to operating funds (if it were legal) would be a very short-term solution. If we miss this chance to upgrade our library buildings, we are in all likelihood condemning several generations to diminishing access to knowledge and information.

A recent Southwest Journal columnist has charged that larger libraries will be more expensive to operate, and there probably is some truth to it. But the new libraries will be smarter as well as larger. They will be more energy efficient, more functional, and in many cases easier to staff. Imagine for a moment the waste created in the old library where staff spent a significant amount of time retrieving books from back shelves rather than assisting patrons at computer stations or information desks. And although it has not been easy to do, the Board has said no to a number of community proposals that it will not be able to support in the long term.

In addition to improving facilities, expanding private support for the library system is a top priority of the Library Board, and of course these efforts need to go hand-in-hand. Based on the tremendous reply to the library referendum and the extremely heavy use of our libraries in every neighborhood, I am confident that support can be gathered to keep our information gateways open and accessible to all.

Colin Hamilton is executive director of The Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library.