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Crimes Against Humanities

Losing Our Libraries

As the Budget Cuts Kick In, Cultural Institutions Kick the Can
By Jeremy Dibbell

The economic downturn is having a dramatic and deleterious effect on historical societies, libraries, museums and other cultural institutions around the country. A combination of plunging endowments, reduced grant and foundation support, and budget cuts on the federal, state and local levels has led to job losses, service cuts, and outright closures from coast to coast.

Just weeks after celebrating the 150th anniversary of Oregon statehood, the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) announced in late February that it would be closing its research library and laying off most of the library’s employees. In early April the library reopened with minimal hours (1-5 p.m., Thursday-Saturday), and executive director George Vogt said in a statement that administrators “appreciate the patience of our members and the public while board and staff planned operations under our new economic realities.” The OHS has also suspended the operation of its publications program. Further budget cuts announced in late May forced OHS officials to admit they are considering various options, from more layoffs to transferring their collections to a university.

Cutting access to vital collections is just another form of cultural crime.

In Arizona, the State Library, Archives and Public Records department closed temporarily on March 4; they are now open only by appointment on Tuesdays from 12-4 p.m. and Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The Oklahoma History Center, which just opened in 2005, will be reducing its hours by two days per week beginning in July.

The New Jersey Historical Society, founded in 1845 and the oldest cultural institution in the state, closed its library indefinitely in February, furloughing the staff and opening only by appointment. In the intervening months they have been able to reopen the research library from 12-5 p.m. on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. In Pennsylvania, state legislators and Governor Ed Rendell have proposed slashing funding for the State Library from $4.8 million to $2.3 million as of July 1, which would mean severe cuts in operations and staff positions. The State Library was founded in 1745, and houses a massive genealogical research collection as well as a notable collection of historical newspapers.

Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell’s 2010 budget proposal contains $5.4 million in cuts to libraries around the state, which include the outright elimination of the Connecticut Library Consortium, the statewide digital library iCONN, and drastic reductions in funding for the Connecticut Education Network, which provides local libraries with software and telecommunications services, and for Connecticard, an interlibrary loan service. Funding for reQuest, a statewide catalog of 20.8 million items, would be suspended.

Ohio’s state senate cut the Ohio Historical Society’s funding by more than $2 million; if those cuts are sustained in the final budget, the Society may be forced to reduce or suspend operations at more than 50 historic sites across the state, as well as at the state archives. The organization has already reduced its staff by 50 percent. At the Minnesota Historical Society staff have begun taking unpaid leave days in anticipation of budget cuts, and layoffs and/or service reductions are expected. Indiana’s governor has proposed a 15% cut for his state library. Several sites operated by the Kansas Historical Society will be operated on a seasonal or unstaffed basis, and the organization recently eliminated twelve full-time positions.

In Seattle, the entire public library system—all branches, all book drops, all programs, even the website and online catalog—will close from August 31 through September 7. This closure, according to a news release, will save the library some $655,000; another $350,000 in cuts, including layoffs, are also being implemented.

Among the museums which may find their operating hours cut back sharply or eliminated altogether after this budget season are the Old State House museum in Hartford, CT; the Robert Toombs House State Historic Site in Washington, GA; the Neil Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Wapakoneta, OH; the Conrad Weiser Homestead in Womelsdorf, PA; the Fort Pitt Museum in Pittsburgh, PA; and the old State Capitol building in Benicia, CA.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: I haven’t even mentioned local libraries or historical societies, or the libraries of colleges and universities. Hundreds of other institutions around the country are facing these same financial roadblocks, and many more (including, I must add, the one I work for) have begun laying off staff, reducing hours and services, and preparing for the possibility of even worse times to come. All this as libraries and other cultural institutions around the country report increased usage as people tighten their personal budgets and look to visit these institutions to use the materials they hold and the services they provide.

Researching this column has been extremely depressing. Being familiar with historical institutions and libraries both as a researcher and as an employee, I know how painful these actions must be for those charged with carrying them out, and for those who rely on these institutions for research or education. At the same time, it is difficult not to sympathize with lawmakers who have to make the tough choices in drawing up budgets.

I usually write about the thefts of books, manuscripts and maps from institutions like those I have mentioned here; in many ways these budget cuts perform much the same function. Cutting access and services to vital collections of archival materials, books, and online resources is just another form of cultural crime, in some ways even more insidious and far-reaching than the actions of individual thieves.

What can be done? Write your governor and state legislators and encourage them to preserve funding for libraries and cultural institutions. Consider making a donation to your favorite historical society, library or museum. Urge support at the federal level for the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and other funding agencies. This too shall pass, we hope—but for now, every effort is needed to keep our cultural heritage accessible to all. Oh, and if you’re planning a research trip to a research institution this summer, it’s probably a good idea to call ahead.

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Nicholas A. BasbanesJeremy Dibbell, an assistant reference librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, blogs about books.