Blog: Josie Parker

What is the role of the public library in the digital age? Where does it draw its funding? How is it impacted by downtown development? Josie Parker, director of Ann Arbor's District Library, weighs in on the future of one of our city's most beloved institutions.

Josie Parker - Post 1: The Fate & Funding of Public Libraries

If public libraries are to continue to exist beyond the first half of this century, we all need to make that decision and we need to make it right now. I’m not talking about an emotional decision that "libraries are good", and "we all loved story time", and "what’s not to like about libraries?"

I'm talking about money and civic priorities. Many libraries in Michigan and across the country will survive the current annihilation of public library funding by state and local politicians, but a good number of them will not. Those that do will still contend with eroding tax bases: sometimes the enemy appears friendly.

The best example on the local level is Tax Increment Financing Authority, or TIFA, diversions on property taxes captured by local taxing authorities. District Library millages are eroded by these tax diversion structures and in a poor economy the use of TIFA diversions increase. Common TIFA authorities are Downtown Development Authorities, Brownfield Redevelopment Authorities, Historical Neighborhood Authorities, Corridor Improvement Authorities and several others in Michigan. Sometimes public library Boards can opt-out of a TIFA diversion, but most of the time opt-out is not permitted by statute.

The long and short of it is this: When a community votes a millage into effect for their local library, TIFA diversions in that community take taxes off the top of the Library millage and that money does not go to the purpose it was originally voted to support.

There is great good in Brownfield Redevelopment, and Downtown Development Authorities provide important infrastructure and economic development support for communities. The cost can be too high, though, for tax supported public institutions. Legislation providing TIFA opt-in or opt-out language needs to be adopted. Libraries can only use taxes for library purposes. Libraries have no other taxing options available to support themselves. Library Boards are responsible for providing certain services with voted millages, and expectations for those services do not decrease with the tax base.

The statewide public library funding picture in Michigan is bleak, and at the same time sadly telling in terms of legislative values. The talk is always righteous about education, life-long learning, and literacy, but even when the money was flowing into the state budget, cuts were being made to public library funding. Libraries have been cut disproportionately compared to all other areas of the state budget - 17% in 2009, 40% in 2010 – and no increases since 1998.

Public libraries are asking for $7M this year in state money to protect statewide library services such as Michigan Electronic Databases ( available to all Michigan residents. When the State of MI closed walk-in unemployment offices and moved forms and processes online, where did unemployed persons without the money to pay for an internet connection go to file and to look for work? They went to the home of a friend or relative, or to a public library.

Public libraries in the United States have changed and flexed through a century. Those that are governed well and managed carefully will make it through this difficult time, but the individual community member needs to value them and be aware of what they represent in a community, and to know what they cost a community. Public libraries are not free, but access to them is equitable and the doors are open to all. If we neglect to fund them, or allow the voted public will to be diverted for some other purpose, we are taking away chances for thousands of persons trying to get ahead in Michigan and that is not friendly.