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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Libraries: Adapt or Die

We’re just a few days removed from the announced closing of half of Charlotte’s 24 libraries and elimination of 150 employees. Staff feel betrayed, let down, and some inspired citizens have organized to raise needed funds to keep the branches open. As a somewhat new aide (2 years), I wasn’t surprised to get “the call” informing me that I no longer was employed with CML. Tenure goes a long way, evidently, and considering last year’s dire forecast that involved the potential elimination of all part-time staff, anyone with eyes knew we were on a sinking ship. But last year, we assumed the library board of directors would right the ship somehow, shuffle funds around here or there and take the needed steps to avoid disaster. After all, that’s their job.
And they failed miserably.
Board members insist they didn’t expect cuts of this magnitude, which could be true. In fact, just last week, system e-mails alerted staff to the possible closing of just four branches and the termination of some 45 staffers. The announced doom-and-gloom cuts early this week proved that, yes, library directors had no clue to as to the extent of the cuts. Most glaring: We can only assume that those same directors did little more in 2009 than bury their collective heads in the sand and pretend there wasn’t an issue. The recent swift closures and layoffs are evidence of that. Good news for them, though, because rarely are the big wigs held accountable for their actions (or inactions, in this case) in times like these. They’ll keep their six-figure salaries, and the front-line staff collecting just short of $20,000 annually (after taxes) get nixed. The machine turns and turns and turns.
This is business. I get it. Even for entities like libraries, that hold so dear their “non-profit” status.
But problems within the system stretch farther than just directors with convenient cases of blindness. The most obvious concern is whether or not libraries as a whole will choose to evolve with the changing digital landscape. Libraries aren’t exactly leading the way in cutting-edge market branding, though they should. Their business model is a slam dunk. They offer (for free) one damn-good, essential product: Knowledge. But, still, some see as an antiquated system, atavistic in nature. Old ladies. Cheesy eye glasses. Shh. Card catalogues. Google has replaced the reference librarian. Digital books have entered the market place, and people actually want them. Libraries are falling behind. Why? Internet, mostly. We all know that. Book nerds (myself included) can turn our noses up to the future, to inevitable change, remembering the good old days. Unfortunately, nostalgia won’t keep the lights on. It’s either adapt or die.
What’s most infuriating is the ideas are there. Directors, those folks you pay measly salaries to be the face of your system, they have some good ideas. While you pat yourselves on the back for offering us working stiffs an “Idea Torrent” to share ideas, we actually thought you’d read and consider them. Some ideas, you did listen: Like the bold, new initiative to charge $1 for headphones. But for the most part, we saw your brilliant forum as a tool of the bureaucracy, a nice way of telling us to shut up and get back to work. South County staffers, for instance, recommended selling valuable donations online to supplement the system’s book fund. If we couldn’t add the items into circulation, why not sell them? Makes sense, but that idea was ignored. And when staff took it upon themselves to research and price items accordingly, they were reprimanded by a Charlie Brown lackey for charging too much ($4 instead of $.25). A push to spearhead a teen-based volunteer tutoring program at South County was also ignored. And somewhere uptown, my work plan goal to organize a writer’s group sits in a cabinet somewhere, or was tossed in the trash.
But I’m not surprised. I am/was a bottom feeder, just silly enough to think that, I don’t know, a crazy idea just might work. Silly me.

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Fund-raising solutions? For starters:
1) Implement an annual library membership fee for all Meck. county residents. Ten bucks a year. Hell, make it twenty. Check out two books and the fee paid for itself. And, by having a yearly fee, the county won’t have to jack taxes and cause a citywide mutiny.
2) Start charging a couple dollars for children’s programs. Listen, there are lines out the door on the mornings of sign-ups. You’re telling me moms and dads won’t pay $2 ($5?) to have their kids entertained for a half hour, four times a month? C’mon.
3) Reserving a community room should cost $25, for everyone. Non-profits. For-profits. Whoever. Twenty five bucks.
4) Pay cuts for the big directors. This goes without saying. Elsewhere, and this will piss some off, pay cuts for some reference librarians. Sorry, guys, but the gap between your day-to-day responsibilities in reference and the folks downstairs or across the way in circulation are narrowing. The big difference between the two: Salary. Reference librarians make anywhere from $40-50,000 (That’s more than most Charlotte teachers, FYI). Insanity.
5) Keep the heat and lights on in one soon-to-be shuttered branch and open a used bookstore.┬áPatrons donate great stuff, and I’d bet they’d be disappointed to know that their donated items were being sold for $.50 to book sellers who turn around and sell them online for $50. So, box up the valuable books and send them to the designated branch with the morning delivery guys. Hire back a handful of part-timers and have them run it. All profits benefit the library system.
6) Limit 10 items for patron holds. Any more than 10, it’s $.50 an item.
I enjoyed my time at CML. Really, I did. And, like anywhere, there are holes and discrepancies. My hope is CML, and libraries in general, continue to be the cornerstones of our communities by empowering individuals with truth and knowledge. That is, after all, priority one. Then, perhaps directors can get to work on mending the relationship with what’s left of their staff. Financial shortfalls won’t improve anytime soon, unfortunately. July is rumored to bring with it another round of cuts, and county funding could drop by 50 percent in 2011.
On Monday, April 5, a former coworker will unlock the front doors at South County, and I’ll be there as a patron, starting Day 1 of my job hunt. One may be in order for some current library directors as well.