The libraries in Miami-Dade County have had a roller-coaster ride this summer. In July, the county decided to not raise taxes even at the expense of closing down 22 libraries. Over time, the number of libraries slated for closure grew smaller until it arrived at zero, but the system still faced cuts to staffing and hours of operation.
Then, in a surprise vote in the early hours of Wednesday morning, the Miami-Dade County Commission decided to fully fund the county’s libraries through a reserve fund, dodging layoffs and ensuring that all branches will remain open the same amount of hours.
But during the two-month-long drama that played out in town hall meetings and on local news stations, one sound bite stood out. Speaking to ABC affiliate Channel 10 in July, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez told the TV station, “People have said that the age of the library is probably ending.”
Is The Age Of The Library Over?
The number of people going to Miami-Dade’s libraries jumped during the recession. Libraries Director Raymond Santiago said that trend was seen across the nation, and during previous hard economic times.
“During the Depression they used to call it the ‘university of the poor,’” said Santiago. “People would come in and sit in the library and learn things when they couldn’t work.”
Libraries also provide a lot of job searching and application services.
But the number of people going to the county’s libraries, called the door count, dropped off in 2012. Santiago says that could be because of the recession tapering off, budget cuts or a combination of the two.
The Book Is Still King
According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted at the end of 2011, almost 60 percent of Americans ages 16 and up have a library card. That number climbs to 62 percent among just 16- and 17-year-olds, a group that includes Nathalie Carballo.
Carballo goes to the main library in downtown Miami every day that it’s open for both school and just for fun. True to form, she was there the day before the commission’s decision looking at a copy of Hunger Games in Spanish; a book she’s already read in English.
“I was curious that they did the book in Spanish,” explained Carballo as she paged through the book while also trying to juggle her cell phone. “I read the whole series, but I think I’m going to read it again in Spanish.”
Carballo’s not alone. Another Pew survey done in 2012 found that the majority of people— about seven out of ten—still use the library for browsing through and borrowing books. Gisele Howard is a librarian at the main library in downtown Miami and she’s seen that data reflected locally.
“I see people need books more than ever especially in this time,” said Howard. “People think the time of publishing physical materials might be transitioning, I’ve never seen it flourish more.”
The Library Of The Future
But Mayor Gimenez says we have to rethink what the library of the future will look like at a time when online search engines and mobile tablets are usurping the services that libraries have provided in the past.
“The age of the library is not over, the age of the library as we know it TODAY is undoubtedly over because it will evolve and it will change,” explained Gimenez after a recent town hall meeting. “What kind of services are going to be demanded of our system, how are we going to fund that?”
Although Miami-Dade libraries have narrowly avoided cuts to hours and staff this year, tapping the reserves to continue those services doesn’t guarantee the same amount of funding next year.
Mayor Gimenez warns that they’ll be in the same position in 2014 unless the county changes the way it funds libraries, and he’s dubious that commissioners will raise taxes.
"And the political reality is, it's pretty tough to raise taxes when you're going through an election," said Gimenez. Six of the commissioners face reelection next year.
The mayor will be chairing a working group to figure out how to repay the reserve fund and, in the process, how to fund libraries so this doesn't happen again.
In terms of what services libraries will offer in the future, Gimenez says technology will continue to play a bigger role. Libraries in some other major cities are making drastic changes to reshape themselves. D.C.’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library is rebranding itself as part tech hub. It has a new digital center with all kinds of gadgets to offer, including tablets, computers stocked with fancy video, photo editing software and even a 3-D printer.
The Miami-Dade library system currently offers high speed wireless, eBooks, music to download and laptops to check out. Director Raymond Santiago said they are looking into possibly getting iPads and tablets for patrons to use.
When asked if potential future funding cuts could hobble the county’s ability to arm its libraries with the technology needed to keep the system from becoming obsolete, Santiago replied, “it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy if you let it.” But, he’s confident libraries have staying power.
“Libraries started on scrolls that were written on papyrus,” said Santiago. “The printing press came, and there were still libraries. The content may change, but the concept of libraries as a place where people come to learn, where the knowledge of a community is stored, where people access knowledge... I’m confident that it will always be here.”