With a new Central Library long on the drawing board, and municipal elections ahead, Wichitans should make it clear to City Hall that a strong public library system is a high priority that demands proper funding. Unfortunately, that’s not a given in Wichita.
An article by Tim Potter in the Sunday Eagle noted that Wichitans looking for a hot new book face longer waits than library users in some other communities in the region. Waiting lists for new titles are likely to be seven people long for each copy in Wichita, compared with three people at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library and two or three people at Oklahoma City’s Metropolitan Library System.
People can argue about whether it’s a public library’s job to satisfy readers clamoring for the latest Janet Evanovich or Bill O’Reilly title.
But Wichita’s poor showing in per capita spending on library materials ($2.33) compared with Topeka ($6.18), Oklahoma City ($5.77) and Lawrence ($5.67) speaks for itself – and speaks volumes about where the library ranks within the city’s spending priorities.
Credit is due Cynthia Berner Harris, the director of libraries, and her staff for doing their part to get the city through the downturn and resulting budget crisis. They have made the most of the money they get from the city and state, which has declined in recent years. The city’s 2013 budget included deep cuts to library hours as of this fall, especially at branch locations. And next summer Wichitans will see their libraries close on Sundays – the latest step in a long chronic condition of underfunding.
Yet the library has seen stable circulation in recent years. And the American Library Association reports rising circulation in many U.S. cities’ public libraries, led by Seattle’s 50 percent increase from 2005 through 2011 – even as the technology long predicted to make libraries obsolete has exploded.
The Wichita City Council advanced a plan in May to pursue a scaled-down design for a new Central Library at Second and McLean that could be expanded as needed. More leadership from the current and next council will be needed as library backers look to meet the goal of getting a $30 million facility built as part of the capital improvement plan in the next few years, with help from a private fundraising campaign.
As Tom Engelmann, the library board’s president, told the council in May, printed books are not going away, and 21st-century libraries will need to not only tend their collections but also keep up with technologies and offer new opportunities for interactions with their communities. The current Central Library isn’t up to that challenge, and the community needs to act.
As it is, judging from the comparatively meager dollars currently going to the library for materials, it’s arguable whether Wichita agrees with Andrew Carnegie’s view that “a library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people.”