Let the Libraries Close

Let the libraries close.

Well, not really. But I may have your attention. Here's why I think that the outrage over the potential closure of five of the 19 branches of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, as announced by its Board the other day as a cost-saving measure, is misplaced. (For a fantastic piece of outrage, read Brian O'Neill's column.)

First: "Revitalized" or not, the city of Pittsburgh just isn't as big and wealthy as it used to be. The citizens of the Burgh are going to have to get used to the idea that public services are going to get cut back. The money just isn't there; a city of 300,000 simply can't support the same level of services -- doesn't demand the same level of services -- that a city of 675,000 once demanded. We see proposals to cut one thing or another all the time, and the outrage is always the same - and nearly always misplaced. Cut police personnel? Never. Close fire stations? Never. Cut a library branch? No! My point goes to the general proposition that libraries never should be closed. Cutting *this* library branch or *that* fire station may be the right or the wrong thing to do, and there are bizarro politics sometimes on display in these decisions. Mayor Ravenstahl's "see no evil" ("I want to see the books") response to the branch-closing announcement is beyond silly, though it's consistent with an "I'm not in charge here" tone that pops up in his administration from time to time.

Even if you disagree with that argument, because you think that books and DVDs are just too damned important to the education of our children and the sustainability of an informed citizenry, then there is something else to consider. (I love books and DVDs, too; most of my professional life involves studying ways to ensure that society gets more of them!)

Second: Why, oh why, are decisions and reactions to this sort of thing always made in a one-off crisis mode? Pittsburgh lurches from "close the fire stations? never!" to "close the libraries? never!" to "where's the casino payment for the new arena" as if Captain Renault were supervising the premises. He was shocked, SHOCKED, to find gambling going on at Rick's -- as he pocketed his winnings. What I mean is that there is no plan here, no sense whatsoever that library-branch-closing or fire-station-closing or arena-construction-subsidized-by-gambling is part of a vision of the city's future. Instead, it's just the latest crisis to be dealt with -- at a time when absolutely no one can pretend to be ignorant of the fact that the crisis is part of a long-term restructuring of the city and region. Library-branch-closing is just a game of winners and losers, and the Carnegie Library Board appears to be doing its best with a bad hand of cards. Metaphorically, Pittsburgh is Captain Renault -- without the winnings.

This is part of what Jim Russell called my new "crystal ball" approach, which I brought back from my recent appearance in Amsterdam:

What will Pittsburgh look like in 30 years? In 50 years? I'm not looking at the "Regional Visioning" project launched earlier this year; whatever that "vision" produces, it won't be a template for "how does Pittsburgh prosper while it downsizes?" Going out and talking to "the people" won't answer the questions that the region really needs to answer, like "how many library branches does the region really need?," when that question needs to be coordinated with the answer to "what's the scale and scope of the public transportation infrastructure that the region should commit to?" and with the answer to "who's going to pay to fix our water and waste systems?" Brian O'Neill's outrage poses the problem but doesn't address it:
The library board doesn't want to get in the middle of a mayor's race, but Pittsburgh is not a green city if it's not walkable. It's not a green city if parents have to drive their kids across town to find an open library. And this vaunted city of neighborhoods can't be a desirable place to live and raise children if we allow our community centers to whither and die."
That rhetoric -- while compelling and eloquent -- misses the point. Every one of the sentences in that paragraph may be true, but they don't add up to an argument against library closing. "Walking to a neighborhood branch" and "driving across town to find an open library" don't exhaust the options. They exhaust the options so long as we all think reactively, in crisis or winners-and-losers mode (sadly, all of the Mayors and mayoral candidates seem to be doing this, too). What if I could ride a convenient bus to a library, or ride a tram?

What if we sketched out a map of public transportation, parks and schools and libraries and other community "centers," public safety resources (some of which could double as community centers), and housing and shopping concentrations (let's call those "neighborhoods") and figure out how to make those different systems talk to each other in ways that reinforce communities and livability? Doing that wouldn't stop the Board from closing library branches, but it might make branch closing (fire station closing, arena subsidies, and so on) part of a game plan that persuades people that a little sacrifice today is part of a better future. Maybe we think about closing library branches here and opening library branches there. Maybe we think differently about the current round of Port Authority transportation cuts. Maybe the arena gets security for its money from the casino up front, rather trying to claim it out of the back end.

I'm not optimistic right now about the region's collective ability to do all of this. But if it is not done, eventually it will have to be done, and it will get done via the winners-and-losers mode that we're seeing at the moment rather than in any more considered way.


10 Responses to "Let the Libraries Close"

Mark Arsenal said... 10/08/2009 2:20 PM

I think each branch needs to have a study of its relative value to the surrounding community, both large and small. For instance, Lawrenceville (disclosure: my own branch) is the oldest in the city, an historic building that will probably be preserved in some way with tax dollars; and it's in one of the most walkable, largest, densest, youngest residential neighborhoods in the city. That is reason to have a good, accessible, well-maintained and well-stocked library.

Unfortunately, the LVille branch is none of those things - it's actually a pretty crappy library. In my opinion, that's reason to invest lots of cash and improve it mightily, not reason to ask LVillagers to go to East Liberty's shiny new one.

macengr said... 10/08/2009 4:13 PM

There's also this thing called a bookmobile. Closing a branch doesn't necessarily mean, as you said, having to drive across town. And a bookmobile is less expensive than a building.

Adam said... 10/08/2009 9:09 PM

bookmobiles are to get books (or dvds or whatever) and that's important but libraries are also community centers, after-school programs, places to hang out, computer labs for people without computers, etc.
I agree with the general point that we need to sit down and think about the best arrangements for a city of 300,000 rather than 650,000.
On the other hand, maybe we had too few library branches in the 1950s. Or, maybe we had enough for the 1950s, but paradoxically need more now that libraries serve all those other functions.

Anonymous said... 10/09/2009 6:51 AM

The library got out of the bookmobile service years ago. The county library system took it over and they don't service the city. Also, it's not cost effective ... surprise, surprise, since the library measures success by how many to what number of people how often ... and if you think all you have to do is buy a truck (cost: well, well beyond a hundred thousand dollars) and staff it with a driver, think again.

As to bus transportation, it has been noted by the library itself that they are trying to service the majority of people - clearly acknowledging that there are sections of the city they won't be servicing - just for this reason. There are sections of the city where there is no bus service from one point to the other. In addition, stay tuned for our new, improved right-sized PAT service to see whom they decide doesn't fall in their service constituency. When the library hours are reduced 28% across the board, try taking 2 buses to get to a building that is closed because the hours when you are not in work or school just happen to be the ones that are cut.

Too bad AC's motto - "Free to the People" - is etched in stone. It's more like "Free to Some of the People."

It never fails to amaze me that the haves always have lots to say over what the have-nots get.

Forget about compassion. Forget about helping those less fortunate than you. We just run out the God and country before Steeler games and symphony performances. All the talk about Pittsburgh being a community of neighborhoods and "We Are Family" is fine until it comes to putting your money where your mouth is.

In this case, community is just another word for something left to lose.

You want to know what this city will look like in 30, 50 years?

Close the library's and wait.

Schultz said... 10/09/2009 9:01 AM

The progressive community is up in arms about this but did anyone ever live close to one of the library branches? I did, and I cannot recall ever seeing anyone in the Beechview branch. Even in Brookline, which is a bigger and nicer Carnegie Library branch, I rarely saw anyone there. Part of the problem is population loss but I think it's also the priorities of students these days. With all the video game consoles, MTV cribs, and of course, sports who has time for libraries and books anymore?

Sorry to yinz who will be missing because of the closings, but most of your local leaders rally for the Steelers and Penguins, not for libraries. You get what you vote for I guess.

illyrias said... 10/09/2009 9:57 AM

I have to say its mightily convenient all the branches that are being closed haven't yet been renovated (code for rebuilt from scratch) which also happen to be the branches in the poorer neighborhoods. Why haven't we renovated the libraries in the poorer neighborhoods? Why is it only when East Liberty got a Whole Foods and a Target that it gets a renovated library?

There's an added bit of irony that sales tax is the largest source of funding for libraries, when sales tax and other flat taxes are renowned for their unjustness towards the poor.

If I could turn back time, I'd stop all the shiny new libraries from being built and just invested some of that money in repairing and improving existing libraries. We don't need a tax-payer funded library that can substitute for Barnes & Noble, that has a trendy coffee shop inside, that has a jungle jim inside (like Oakland). We need lots of smaller libraries (sharing collections) that have seats, books, and computers. Pittsburgh is a city of small neighborhoods, and it should be a city of small libraries - not meccas.

Schultz said... 10/09/2009 12:33 PM


To reiterate my point about priorities, the burgh was just ranked the #1 sports town but was tied (with LA!) for #27th in a recent ranking for "smartest" cities. I recall several people I work with in Pittsburgh saying "I don't know why they even give the G20 protesters the right to protest." I was dumbstruck. These same people think that similar demonstrations following the Steelers winning the Superbowl or Pens winning the Cup are okay. I'm not trying to say that Pittsburgh is a dumb city, because it clearly is not, but on the same hand pretty much everything takes a backseat to professional sports in that town.

Anonymous said... 10/13/2009 11:32 AM

I strongly agree that there needs to be a real vision of what we want and need in our city and region going forward.

To me one of the most shocking things about the library board and administration's decision to close neighborhood libraries was the utter silence and seeming lack of any plan of what constitutes adequate funding and/or what they'd do with that funding. Where is the vision? Where is the leadership?

If this really is a true plan for sustainability which is the claim then great, but I would like to see the rest of the plan. All I see right now is reaction to a budget crisis with no thought to what's best even under these current economic conditions.

CLPstaff said... 10/13/2009 1:35 PM

I'm here to clear up some misconceptions. I currently work for CLP.
1) The old Allegheny Regional library by Buhl is the oldest location, 1890 it was finished
2) This notion CLP only renovates in areas that aren't poor??? We just finished the Hill District in 2008 and before that the Woods Run library in 2006. Take a drive through those areas and then re-evaluate the claim that certain areas get preferential treatment. One would argue the new Allegheny library with the homeless shelter right around the corner isn't exactly a wonderful area. The renovations have taken place where they were desperately needed.

emma said... 10/25/2009 3:37 PM


Rally at City Council Open Hearing Tuesday, October 27th 10 am

Now is an absolutely crucial time for showing your support for our neighborhood libraries. We can stop branch closings and get our politicians to commit to real long-term funding in this election time. They've already started discussions so let's keep the pressure on and make it happen!

3 Rivers
6 Rings
19 Branches

Show up with signs and friends.

City Council Building
414 Grant Street
Downtown Pittsburgh


- Write a letter to the editor
- Call the Mayor's 311 Line
- Call your County Council Representative 412-350-6490

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