Compared to other Texas cities, Dallas residents rank near the top for library visits, per capita. (Go, Dallas!) Yet, when it comes to library funding, we rank among the lowest — not only in Texas, but in the nation, too.
Four years ago, our library budget was $32.3 million. Since then, it has been slashed almost in half — this year’s budget is $18.2 million.
If that doesn’t bother you, consider this: Fort Worth spends roughly 40 percent more per capita than Dallas on its library system. I hope Mayor Mike Rawlings will correct this embarrassment before the next fiscal year begins in October.
During a recent visit to the Audelia Road Library, I approached a woman shelving books to ask a few questions. I quickly learned I was speaking to Sandra King, the new branch manager, and I asked her how the library had been coping with the budget cuts. King told me that the Audelia branch’s hours haven’t changed, but the city moved staff around — King transferred from Arcadia Park to replace the Audelia manager when she retired.
One impact of the budget cuts was happening right in front of me.
“Now, we all help shelving books,” King says.
The need for help is understandable because Audelia Road has the highest circulation of all the branches in the Dallas system. (Go, Lake Highlands!) Our talk about shelving quickly led to talk of volunteer support, most of which comes from the Audelia Road Library Friends.
The friends have been raising funds for our local branch since 1998. Their efforts translate to furniture, book shelves and carts, signage and even community garden activities for kids.
Board member Janice Fowler leads the gardening effort. “The city cuts the grass,” Fowler told me. “That’s all they do.” Fowler donates generous amounts of time and energy beautifying the library’s landscape.
Whenever I hear about taxpayers taking over maintenance tasks at a public building, I wonder if the city might be abdicating its responsibility. But some people believe patrons of the library should pay to maintain it, instead of taxpayers.
Walt McCool, president of the Audelia Road Friends, doesn’t subscribe to that belief.
“I have a lot of nostalgia for libraries from when I was a kid,” McCool says. “I don’t remember there ever being an admission fee.”
In today’s world of ebooks and Google, might public libraries become obsolete? One glaring problem with both is that they require access to electronics.
“There are so many people who don’t have access,” McCool says. “That’s what a library has always done. But it’s more than that. It’s a community. It’s a meeting place. People do things at the library they can’t do anywhere else.”
Relying on Google or Wikipedia for research has its obvious limitations. Wikipedia isn’t always accurate. And, while searches are free today, they may not remain free in the future.
Meanwhile, on a typical weekday afternoon at Audelia Library, it’s hard to find a computer that isn’t in use. Often we think of the library as a place that serves children (storytime, summer programs) and seniors (fixed income, extra time, and they read “real” books). But on a recent weekday visit at 2 p.m., I observed a mixed crowd: men, women, college students, professionals and retirees.
McCool says friends of library branches across the city always turn up at town hall meetings and at City Hall to advocate for libraries at budget time, but he expressed doubt that the city will reverse its trend of cuts.
“Once they started taking the axe to the budget, support of Friends’ groups became all that much more important,” he says.
I agree and I disagree. I agree that supporting a library’s friends is important, but I am holding on to hope that as long as Fort Worth spends more than we do on its libraries, Dallas will not rest easy.