Changing Gears
12:52 pm
Wed May 11, 2011

Across the region, shutting the local library

What happens when your local library shuts its doors? That’s a question Midwestern towns from Evanston, Ill., to Troy, Mich., are asking as local libraries are targeted in budget cuts.

I went to Northwest Indiana, where the Gary Library Board has just decided to close its main branch, to find out the impact on a local community.

Gary has five library branches. The other four have names, like Kennedy, or Du Bois. This one is simply called the "main library."

There was steady rain on the Saturday morning when I went to check it out. From the outside, the concrete slab exterior makes it hard to realize it’s actually a library – until you step inside.

There, the muted quiet and musty scent of stacks of books are familiar.

But we all know libraries aren’t just for books anymore.

Inside the reference room, I found Craig and Zachariah Boyd, a father and son who often spend Saturday mornings here.

Craig said this is the only branch nearby that he knows is open on Saturdays. He takes advantage of the wireless Internet at the library and does work – and brings Zach to do his homework, too.

“I just want to teach him a good work ethic,” said Craig Boyd.

Father and son sit quietly in the reference room for hours – Craig on his laptop, Zach first with schoolwork, then books and games. When Craig’s done, Zach gets to go to the children’s section as a reward.

But Craig worries about what will happen to other children when the library closes on Dec. 31.

Like many communities, the Gary Public Library Board decided it couldn’t afford to keep all of its branches open.

When it shuts, half of the system’s 60 employees will be out of work.

The system now has five branches because it was created when the city had 180,000 people.

Today, Gary’s population is 80,000.

Four other branches across the city will stay open, but many of the main library patrons don’t have their own transportation, so they’ll have a hard time getting there.

Seniors citizens walk here for computer classes.

The charter school down the street uses this as its school library.

And unemployed people come here to look for jobs – like Michael Jenkins.

 “I’m not too computer savvy,” said Jenkins, who also doesn’t have access to a computer. He does have a commercial driver’s license and is looking for Chicago companies to target for work. That’s why he’s flipping through the Yellow Pages.

“It’s not just like closing a gas station,” said Jenkins of the impact of the library’s closing. “The library becomes a part of the community. You close a library; you’re closing down part of the community.”

Upstairs, part of that community is on the second floor.

Public meeting spaces are hard to find in Gary.

The library’s auditorium is used this Saturday morning by a local chapter of Phi Delta Kappa, a sorority for teachers.

And across the hall, there’s a meeting of a chapter of the National Federation for the Blind.

Raymond Harris brought his wife Ella to that meeting, where they found out about the library’s future.

“How can you close a main library? It’s just ridiculous,” said Raymond Harris.

But libraries all over the country are facing budget cuts. If they’re not shutting down entirely, they’re at least trimming hours.

The most extreme case may be Detroit – where an $11 million budget shortfall means at least 10 of its 23 local branches may close.

The country’s best funded libraries are in Ohio, where money comes directly from the state. But even there, next year’s budget will be cut at least 5 percent.

Raymond Harris thinks the state of Indiana should intervene for this library.

“I think our state is closing us out,” he said, simply. “They don’t care whether Gary lives or Gary exists. I don’t think they even know we are here.”

Gary’s library system is typical of most systems – the money comes from local property taxes. And that revenue has plummeted with the housing market downturn.

The situation in Indiana has been further complicated by a property tax cap that was passed by Indiana voters last fall – meaning that even if the local library authority wanted to ask for more money, it can’t.

“When people hear the word ‘property tax’ cap they think it’s a good thing, but they don’t think about how it will shift public services they’ve come accustomed to,” said Susan Akers, the executive director of the Indiana Library Federation.

The president of the Gary Public Library Board, which voted 4 to 3 to shut down the main branch, is Tony Walker.

“It was just impossible to continue on when you are going to lose 50 to 60 percent of your tax revenue in a year,” said Walker.

That meant cutting about $3 million from the $5 million budget. An outside consulting firm analyzed the data, and pointed out the choice was either to close the main library branch or close the other four spread out across Gary.

Walker knew the decision wouldn’t be popular, especially during an election year. He’s running for the Gary City Council, though, and said he didn’t think it made sense to postpone the vote until after the election.

“I’m running for Gary City Council, whose total focus is going to be what to take away from people,” he said. “So, if I’m signing up to run for that type of job there is no sense in running from it now.”

The elections were last week. Tony Walker lost.

And those who were elected are left to reconcile an $11 million budget shortfall – and to figure out what other services to cut for Gary to survive.