Retiring as director of the Schenectady County Public Library in 2002 after 25 years of service, I chose to refrain from making judgments on the future course of the library.
An announcement that the central library would close for 18 months for capital improvements made me reconsider that decision. Fortunately, that is now a moot point; library officials announced May 10 that the county may scale back construction plans and the library won’t close for more than a few weeks.
Still, anyone who has a stake in the library — and that includes virtually every household in the county — needs to be concerned about the manner in which decisions affecting the library are made.
Since scores of library patrons have publicly opposed the plan that would have denied residents access to the county’s most important cultural and informational center for an extended period of time, there is little more for me to add.
However, I wish to address a far more serious problem that bodes ill for the future of the county library, namely the continuing erosion of the policy-making power of the library board of trustees, which today has very little authority.
In 2004, this board developed a very practical and cost-effective plan for renovating and expanding the central library — a plan that was summarily dismissed, even though it would have resulted in very little, if any, disruption of library services.
Also, library patrons and citizens should be aware that New York’s education law specifically places under the authority of the local library board the complete responsibility for the community’s program of library service and the expenditure of all funds [Sections 6211-6227 of the Unconsolidated Laws and Sections 226 and 260 of the New York State Education Law]. This is not happening in our county.
As a result of the increasing financial burdens for mandated county services, the library has seen continuing and severe budget reductions that will most likely escalate in future years.
What’s to be done? Schenectady County should consider an alternative approach to library governance: specifically, the establishment of a library district in which the residents of the county directly elect the library trustees and vote on the level of funding for the
library, both operating costs and capital improvements.
What would be the benefits? First, the county Legislature would not need to appropriate funds for the library. Second, the citizens would determine the level of library services and funding they deem necessary to deliver these services.
Are there successful library districts? We need only to look to Albany for an example of such a transition, specifically, the Albany Public Library, which moved from a municipal responsibility to a library district some years ago. The city of Albany assisted in this transition, because the city was finding it increasingly difficult to provide funds to maintain the level of the library’s services. Other libraries have similarly made the transition.
Need for discussion
How does the county begin such a transition? A delegation of county government representatives, library trustees, the Friends of the Library, and citizens of Schenectady County should explore and discuss this option. Not only should they meet with their counterparts in the city of Albany, they should also seek advice from the New York State Education Department’s Division of Library Development, which has assisted other public libraries in changing the governance structure.
If steps are not taken now, decisions on library facilities and services will continue to be made at the county level, where personnel are already burdened with so many challenging issues and a financial future that will likely be dismal for the foreseeable future. Because it is not a state-required county service, the county library will most certainly suffer further cuts in order to divert funds to mandated county services.
The losers will be the people of Schenectady County, who now take the public library services for granted.
Ronald L. Lagasse is the former director of the Schenectady County Public Library. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.