Death of the Neighborhood Library?
Closure of the Southeast Branch Library is Ominous
But now the word is out, despite Riverside Drive's initially low profile in the budget parade. A passing mention in the guts of the budget document, leading to passing mentions in the press, tipped Riverside patrons and Southeast Austin neighborhoods that the branch was a goner. This was enough, though, to start a petition drive, spawn a website, prompt a council-chambers news conference, and light a fire under the seats of city councilmembers who hold Riverside's future in their hands.
This is the third time in 10 years that Riverside Drive has been offered up for sacrifice by the perennially cash-strapped Austin Public Library, nationally renowned for providing champagne services on a beer budget. Every year, it seems, the same dreary options face Austin Public: Close at least one branch, cut back the library's hours, or slash the book budget, because you ain't getting any more money, even though materials aren't getting any cheaper and Austin isn't getting any smaller. And every year, the citizens, or at least the ones who care about libraries, throw fits and manage to soften, though not reverse, the proposed cuts, and as a consequence Austin Public's budget has grown, in real dollars, a whopping 1.9% since 1987.
Library poverty is not just an Austin disgrace, but the status quo across the country and certainly across Texas. But this year the labels are different. Instead of admitting outright that the library is less important, to them at least, than More Cops on the Street, city managers have tied this year's bloodletting to their vaunted Affordability 2000 reinventing-government initiative, designed to make the City of Austin more efficient and effective. (These two terms get used interchangeably, a dangerous practice.)
Austin Public was one of three departments to be audited by an Affordability 2000 team over the last fiscal year, and to no one's surprise, the team found the library to be about as efficient and effective as it could possibly be. If you were an auditor, you might think this a good reason to turn in a suitably valedictory report and head for the lake.
This was apparently not an option, because the Affordability 2000 report instead highlights the curious proposal to convert Austin Public into a "regional" library system, with far fewer but somewhat larger branches. Each of these would serve more generic information needs than do the current branches, which seek to customize services and collections to best serve their neighborhoods. Of course, no such facilities exist in Austin now, so a regional system means major capital outlay -- upwards of $100 million -- which isn't just lying around in the city's accounts.
So we would need a bond election, and other elements of a regional system likewise need the full cooperation of the community and the city council. Just because a regional system might be a good idea -- other cities do it -- does not mean it has a public go-ahead. "Either we need alternate funding sources or alternate methods of service delivery," says Austin Public Library director Brenda Branch. "This may be the year to have this dialogue with the city council. There's merit to a regional system, but we need the authority to pursue that, and that comes from the council and the citizens of Austin." (A major knock on the Affordability 2000 effort is its almost total lack of public input -- in the library's case, over a period of nine months the team spent about four hours with members of the council-appointed Library Commission, which is four hours more than they spent with any other public stakeholders.)
Nevertheless, with the Afforda2000 recommendations already on the table, it's hard not to see the Riverside Drive closure -- which will save the city a whopping $192,000 -- as Step One toward a new kind of library, the answer to a question none of us have yet been asked. "The push from the city manager to close branches, which has happened before, coupled with the Affordability 2000 audit and the concept of a regional system, sent chills up our spines," says Library Commissioner Julie Todaro. "To us, the two are strongly linked."
Indeed, the Affordability 2000 report goes on to recommend what it calls "consolidation" of branches, and the proposed budget reads: "The City's Affordability 2000 review of the Library recommends that branches be closed when underutilized or in close proximity to other facilities. To this end, the Riverside Drive branch was selected for closure due to its proximity to other branches, relatively low usage, and the fact that it occupies a leased space."
Ultimately, this last clause is all that matters; Riverside's usage and circulation stats are the lowest of the three leased branches for which city-owned replacements aren't already under construction. The opening of three of those replacements in fiscal 1998 -- the new Zaragoza, Southeast Austin, and Yarborough libraries, replacing Govalle, Dove Springs, and North Loop -- is what the city manager means when he talks in the budget about "opening new libraries."
Riverside's supporters, including the Library Commission, the Friends of the Austin Public Library, and the neighborhoods thereabouts, view the same stats from a different vantage point. Compared to the other seven Eastside branches, Riverside ranks #1 or #2 in almost every measure, and has one of the best multilingual collections in the system. Compared to the entire system, Riverside is about mid-pack, but that hardly makes it "low-use." And Riverside leads the entire city in the number and attendance of special programs, including the Job Information Center, the Internet Training Center, and the busiest outpost of the VICTORY tutoring program -- none of which have been promised alternate homes if Riverside closes.
Likewise, the proximity issue is a red herring, since the nearest branches -- Terrazas, Twin Oaks, and Southeast Austin, née Dove Springs -- are across the river, the interstate, and Hwy. 71 respectively, none of which is exactly walkable, whereas currently Riverside serves thousands of apartment units within two miles, sits on multiple Capital Metro lines, and has more parking than any other branch. "We just opened a new library in Oak Hill, and the circulation there is just unbelievable," says Library Commission chair Chip Harris, "but we haven't seen a significant decrease in circulation at Manchaca Road, which is the nearest branch. The more broadly distributed the facilities are, the more usage you have, and the more effective the library will be. That's what makes the Riverside Drive case so sad."
To Southeast Austinites, the suggestion that their quadrant is over-served by the city is both laughable and infuriating. Which introduces our old friends Race and Class into the Riverside Drive story. As Harris writes -- under the heading "Another Injustice for East Austin" -- in his contribution to the Save Riverside Drive website, "While the city opened two new suburban libraries last year (Milwood and Oak Hill) and will be spending nearly $500,000 in operating costs to fund them, the City Manager recommends closing the only urban facility that serves [its] area.... The City manager defends his recommendation by saying it's a national trend. So is urban deterioration."
Harris also notes the inherent contradiction between the push to close neighborhood libraries and the city's proudly advanced goals of a compact city and neighborhood vitality. "Nothing is more important than giving the kids in this neighborhood access to books," writes citizen Julie Hunt in her contribution to the online Save Riverside Drive petition. "Most parents in the area do not have the resources to purchase books for their children. If it's difficult to pay the rent, then pass bonds to build a permanent facility here."
Such was the solution advanced in Austin Public's own strategic plan, adopted by the Library Commission months ago but still unseen by the city council. "It's been postponed and postponed," says Harris, "and then out comes the Affordability 2000 audit with its own recommendations that are contrary to the library's own plan. It's safe to say that I've been very disappointed with this process."
To speak your piece about Riverside Drive and the Austin Public Library, join in the city council budget hearing on Monday, Sept. 8. The final adoption of the budget will be the week of September 15.
The "Save Riverside Drive" website can be found at http://www.realtime.net/~chip/save-riverside; also see the Chronicle site, /, for Mike Clark-Madison's previously published guide to Austin's branch libraries and more.