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Birmingham Public Library Asks City For More Funding to Keep Open Libraries

Birmingham Public Library (Photo, Cody Owens)
By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times

The Birmingham Public Library (BPL) has had its budget cut by nearly $4 million since 2010  and needs more funding, if all of its branches are to remain open, a BPL official said at a City Council committee meeting this week.

“If we can keep all our libraries open, I think that’s a wonderful thing, but I think we also have to deal with the realities of where we’ve seen our budget cuts come from,” said Kim Richardson, who chairs the long range planning committee for the BPL Board of Trustees, “just as you would in your household…if your budget has been cut by a third, something has to go.”

Over the past decade, funding for BPL in the city’s annual budgets has been cut from $17.1 million to $13.2 million, making a decrease of $3.9 million, Richardson told councilors during the Education Committee meeting.

“When you cut to the level that you almost can’t find any more cuts, then where do you go,” Richardson said. “What kind of opportunities do you have to find, or solutions do you have to find, to say, ‘How can we provide the best level of service?’”

Councilor Clinton Woods said that BPL should be pre-emptively involved in yearly budget conversations if City Hall is going to address the problems of the system. Since BPL is not housed in City Hall, Woods said councilors may be unaware of the needs.

“Everybody with a budget, they’ve got way more needs than what actually makes it to the request, but I think with the library, we’ve got a lot of blind spots as far as the need,” he said.

This latest request from BPL for additional funding comes after board members, city officials and residents clashed earlier this year when board president Eunice Johnson Rogers recommended closing four of the city’s libraries, causing residents to plea for keeping libraries open.

Richardson said BPL needs residents of Birmingham to be “champions within our communities,” sharing with their representatives and neighbors the importance of funding the public libraries.

“When we have a chance to set our priorities through how we allocate our dollars, being able to say libraries are important and that we don’t want to see the cuts,” Richardson said, “but also, most importantly, talking to others so that others are aware, and I think that’s a role that anyone can play…”

Beyond checking out books and other media, BPL also provides a variety of other services to city residents, including computer and WiFi access, voter registration and notary services, in addition to hosting numerous job fairs and other community events. Richardson said libraries were useful when she started her own business, Kimberly Richardson Consulting, LLC. 

“When I started my business, I used the libraries for a number of my meetings. I didn’t have an office space…that’s something that could be used as an incubator for a small business owner,” Richardson said, “who would find themselves in the same position that I was in 15 years ago of trying to figure out where you go when you’re trying to get a business off the ground.”

Richardson also said that if library branches close, BPL is thinking about what can be done replace the services that those libraries provided.

“We had conversations with faith-based groups, with our Parks and Recreation board about, ‘Could we convert and do some more innovative and creative things, if our libraries are to close,’” Richardson said, “so that we’re not just saying we’re closing libraries, and their services are gone, but how can we have continuity of those services just in a new way.”

Moving forward, Richardson said BPL also needs to address its facilities issues. Currently, three libraries in the city are closed for issues like flooding, including the East Lake and Ensley branches, which have been closed since June, as well as the Powderly branch.

The Powderly branch developed a leak in its heating system in November but should be repaired and re-opened “within the month,” said Janine Langston, who was named director of BPL last week.

Langston said Ensley closed because of severe flooding. Since June, some damage has been removed from the facility, but no repairs have been done, and the facility has sat vacant, Langston said.

East Lake has been closed because of an HVAC problem since the summer but BPL did not offer more information on its status.

Rick Journey, director of communications for Mayor Randall Woodfin, said he would provide a comment once he received more information. A representative of BPL could not be reached for additional comment.