Ubiquity and Overbranching

Chicago city administrators have taken care of the city’s libraries. As of today, the Chicago Public Library boasts 79 neighborhood branches throughout 77 community areas. These communities are comprised of some 200 individual neighborhoods. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods–often demographically opposed neighborhoods, butting and scraping against one another like tectonic plates. One may suppose the inherent diversities in culture, ethnicity, economic status, and available community resources would substantiate continual presence of the public library in each of these areas and demand that facilities, collections, and services are maintained and kept up-to-date. That seems to be fundamental to CPL’s mission–to be available to all parts of a wildly diverse city. And I can dig it. The internet is invaluable to any library seeking hyperlocality. But nothing is as local as a community-centric physical facility.

Yet some have theorized that libraries, like plants, flourish best with regular trimming. The idea, of course, is that less is more: shutter those old rented storefront branches with the least circulation and lowest gate counts and put that extra cash into more stressed branches. And that’s a fair argument, at least, superficially. Others offer a more shortsighted view, pointing to the costs of erecting a new neighborhood library. To build an 8,000-square-foot brick, LEED-certified structure in any part of Chicago is a seven-figure investment or more, depending on location. These conservatives need only consider the return on such an investment vs. the alternative. But that’s another post altogether.

Flatfunded and overbranched, the Portland Public Library closed branches and went portable. While some argue the Charlotte-Mecklenburg library system was overfunded and overbranched before last year’s major cuts and closures, others believe data may show otherwise.

I’ve even seen the occasional library blogger from Somewhere, USA make the claim that there are too many branches in general. My question is how can that be? Is there really a national sentiment that library systems are bloated?

Overbranching and overbuilding are certainly possible. Though any community is fortunate, in prosperous times, to be targeted for a new or improved library branch, the fact is that funds allocation may not always be practical for the long term. Growth within may very well trump expansion. Still, there remains no substitute for the physical space. The localized library, dedicated to finding, creating, and connecting, is still the most tangible and most accessible element inherent in a library’s model of ubiquity.

What’s the word in your town? Do you have too many libraries? Not enough? How important is it to have a library branch in walking distance from your district school? What are your thoughts on overbranching and hyperlocality? Is a smaller library system a stronger one? Is a larger system built for longevity? Please share.

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About Steven V. Kaszynski
librarian, editor, contributor

5 Responses to Ubiquity and Overbranching

  1. Kathy says:

    Great. Another reason I wish I lived in Chicago! 🙂

  2. Stan says:

    Nice post. Glad to see the libraries there are doing so well. I hope they’re treating school libraries just as well. LOL. If they’re anything like most of California, kids are getting rear-ended. So yes, I would say a library branch near any grade school or high school is a great idea if you have the money.

  3. It’s not about number of branches, it’s about lack of fluidity. What good does a branch built 30 years ago do the population of today? Maybe in areas with low change this wouldn’t matter, but in the south where the population has been booming- and it’s still cheaper to spread than rehabilitate- existing library branches might not be in the best locations for the cities’ current layouts and needs.

    However, I think lack of fluidity is an overall problem of libraries in general (with the few exceptions that prove the rule). I’m not sure of how best to solve this- but I don’t think simply growing is the best answer. Library systems are expensive and used by a minority of people. (not saying a minority have cards, but that a minority actually USES the library.) Constant growth- even growth to meet demand- isn’t really viable. Things are supposed to get cheaper with progress, but they don’t in libraries. Libraries are a luxury to cities- they just are. No matter how much good they do, you can’t make the case that a city MUST have a public library, or else. These are the reasons why we can’t just grow and grow. These are the reasons why, when budget times come, people ask- “Why does the library need a budget of $XX per capita? (I don’t think they’re asking this yet, but they will soon. I would.) What exactly does the library do again? Don’t we have community centers and workforce offices that do some of that? And can’t people rent movies from redbox for a buck- I mean, why do they get them for free again? Can’t people who want to learn and read go to the community college or high school libraries for books?”

    Of course, the profession has no REAL answers to those questions (that would satisfy the asker). Instead, we grow in hopes that the more we’re wormed into the neighborhoods- the more people we add to the loud voices of the minority who USE us- the more likely it is that the negative press will not be worth it to the asker and they’ll move along. All this done instead of doing what needs to be done. Providing a better, sleeker service to more people in more places for less money; leveraging technological progress to allow us to be responsible stewards of the public funds entrusted to us; shifting focus and moving with a nimble skill to meet demand; being willing to do what is best for the citizens we serve instead of the organizations we work for.

    I could be wrong here, but I don’t think so.

  4. I’m a Chicagoan (and a former Portlander & New Yorker), and I would put up with fewer branches for MORE HOURS. That’s what Multnomah County did for a while–one branch would be closed on Monday, but the rest open, the other on Tuesday, etc. It was so much more helpful to know that at 8pm EVERY day there was a library I could go to nearby, even if it wasn’t the absolute closest library.

    The real issue for me in Chicago though is that if you are going to have restricted hours, then when someone has a 5 cent fine, they should still be able to do things online (like, say, renew that book). Restricted hours plus insane fining only makes it look like the library’s out to make money off of you, which in CPL’s case may be true, but could you be a little more discreet about it guys?!

  5. Fair and compelling comments. What strikes me most, I’m afraid, is the news that immediately followed my posting this. Jenny, as a Chicagoan, I’m sure you know that Mayor Emanuel has proposed 363 cuts in Chicago Public Library staff, including 60 librarians. Boy, just when I mention how well the city has distributed library service, the bottom falls out of the bucket. Word has it that there may be a deal in place to reduce that massive number of staff reductions, but there is a lot of activity, stress, and advocacy happening this weekend.

    That said, questions about brand ubiquity, hyperlocality, and overbranching in the rest of our country’s libraries remain. Lay it on me.

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