A Tale of Two Cities and Libraries: Philly vs. Nashville

A tough economy means tough times  =  library funding cuts……blah, blah, blah.

But wait….. there’s much more to the story.

Philadelphia, PA

I was reading about the Philadelphia public libraries and the closing of 11 branches due to budget problems. The story and related posts from SLJ are here:

Philadelphia Mayor Closing 11 of 54 Branches 11/06/2008
In Philadelphia, Mayor Faces Criticism Over Library Closings 12/02/2008
Philadelphia Closing 11 Branches 12/15/2008   Also includes Philly, San Diego, NY, Phoenix budget info.
New Twist: Philadelphia Branches Slated for Closing Are De Facto School Libraries 12/16/2008

It seemed to be the all too typical hard luck story thread about “tough times means tough choices”. Whenever I hear those words related to schools or municipalities….I know the next phrase involves library budget cuts. But then, the Philly story morphs into the fact that in many cases the Philly Schools also have inadequate or no school library in place in the school buildings also due to long term funding cuts and competing budget needs.

OK….long term school libraries defunded and forced into extinction. Now neighborhood public libraries are planned to close due to budget cuts…again defunding leads to library extinction. Obviously the Philadelphia school and public officials believe that libraries are of minimal importance. By the way – the Philadelphia schools have a dismal performance and achievement record.

The Philadelphia Inquirer 12/14/08 editorial:  Alternatives to closings  this article raises two important points:

  1. “Philadelphia has a 45-percent school dropout rate and a poverty rate of 25 percent and rising, the highest of any large U.S. city.”
  2. “The Free Library can be an essential tool in reversing these demographic trends, through after-school programs, job-search assistance, resume workshops, literacy-training classes, and free Internet access. The Free Library offers Philadelphians both a ladder to opportunity and a supporting hand as they climb it.”

My normal reaction would be: poor misguided officials are limiting access and opportunity for students and the community. Clearly this is a case of government gone bad.

But then…… at the same time, in the same troubled economy, comes a different response.

Nashville, TN

Nashville Mayor Proposes Public Library Run School Libraries 11/21/2008

Back in November at the beginning of the current economic meltdown, Nashville mayor Karl Dean faced with budget pressures and the same failing school  performance and achievement issues, “has requested the school libraries be consolidated under the Nashville Public Library(NPL)—an apparent first-ever move in which a major city’s school libraries would be run by a public library, offering potential synergies but also posing significant implementation challenges.”  With the following key issues:

  • Consolidation would start with high school libraries
  • Procurement savings seen
  • Challenges regarding organization, technology
  • Schools board chair expresses concern
  • “To me, this decision is common sense,” Dean wrote. “A consolidated library system will immediately increase and improve the resources available to our students, and allow them to move seamlessly between their school and community libraries.

    LJ Talks to Donna Nicely, Nashville Public Library Director 12/16/2008

    Donna Nicely, NPL Director in the above article said some extremely important things:

    “I felt great enthusiasm from the school staff, as well as my own staff, for making these libraries so strong, of making them visible and important and a beacon…there was real excitement about that idea. I believe we can get that done.

    I don’t know… there are enormous issues, but they are things we need to bring to table, take a good look, and see how we might work through them……. The mayor is concerned about the school system, and the school system is under state aegis; it’s not achieving the standards it needs.

    I think we’re getting ready to embark on a very exciting idea. …. Let’s do something together where we know we can make a real impact and then go from there.

    We’re considered a very strong agency in the city. He’s a real library person. I’m always open to new ideas. 

    We’ve just finished a strategic conversation with our own users. We asked: ‘In the next five to ten years, what should we be doing, and what should we be doing if resources are reduced?’ In that study, people over and over again said, ‘We’re concerned about our teens, what they’re doing after school, and we wished you worked more with the schools.’ Well, when this came along, I thought [that] there seems to be real potential for strengthening that.”

    So how is that two major cities can see libraries sooooo differently?

    In Philly, the libraries both school and public, are seen by the public officials as a less than vital service. Libraries are just another line item available to wring out some cost savings. In Nashville, the public library is seen as “a very strong agency”. In addition, it is clear that library director Donna Nicely has a wonderful, positive, open minded attitude. Her ” let’s explore the possibilities, so together we can do something great” approach to this challenging environment is refreshing.

    I truly believe that the economic challenges faced nationally and locally will require new, bold, different library solutions. Libraries can be the community resource that offers a welcoming environment, free resources, internet access, consumer information, and technology support. Libraries also offer the community and neighborhood “connections” that support job seekers, our students,  families and seniors. 

    I also believe libraries will choose to go down one of two paths:

    1. listen, change, adapt, serve, make new community connections and aggresively reach out. In the end they will be a better and stronger library. One that has improved their community stature and relevance.
    2. Or…….cower, hoard, bunker down, shrink and look inward. This path leads to library extinction.

    My choice – let’s be courageous, get creative, be aggressive……think greatness!


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    2 Responses to “A Tale of Two Cities and Libraries: Philly vs. Nashville”

    1. Deanna Larson Says:

      The LJ article was quoting Donna Nicely, director of Nashville Public Library, talking about Nashville libraries being a strong agency in Nashville, not Memphis. The enfolding of Metro Schools libraries and Nashville Public Library was suggested by Nashville TN Mayor Karl Dean. Otherwise great post highlighting a real tragedy happening in many cities around the nation.

    2. Brad Fish Says:


      Thank you! Another late night posting earns a typo. I have corrected the posting.
      Kudos to all those libraries and staff who work so hard to improve their libraries and communities….even in tough times…:)


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