In a meeting on the Arlington government’s proposed fiscal 2023 budget, it was good to see the library director at least somewhat address the elephant in the room.
Diane Kresh told County Board members that, over the past year, about 55,000 patrons have used their library cards to access services at least once. That’s down from 75,000 pre-pandemic. Yipes.
Board members seemed disinclined to ask what to us would be two obvious follow-ups: To what do you attribute the decline, and what should we do to address it?
(Apparently “throw cash at the problem” is one answer to the second question. While patronage is down by double digits, the budget proposed by County Manager Mark Schwartz sees library funding up 6 percent. Such is the way of government.)
As to the the seminal question – “why did patrons disappear?” – there would seem to be a number of answers.
Some, perhaps, have been scared off by the good Dr. Fauci et al and their doom-and-gloom. Lordy, given the number of local residents who wander around outdoors with masks on (a totally useless exercise, as long has been known), it’s perhaps no surprise that some people don’t want to come into library facilities. But let’s not forget that, given all the changes to how libraries operate, there’s much that can be done online, so skittishness about going into a building can’t be the full answer.
Perhaps the bigger problem is that the county government simply decided libraries weren’t important during the pandemic. We can’t think of any other reason that they were kept closed so long, then reopened in such drag-it-out, piecemeal fashion. County leaders first pinned blame on health concerns, then staffing issues. Uh-huh.
We are perhaps the biggest boosters of county libraries out there, so much so that we screamed and hollered that they needed to be open as soon as feasible. County leaders, however, dawdled. And apparently, the public got out of practice in using the services offered.
It’s a crying shame: Library services are exceptionally vital; tossing all the budget moolah in the world won’t matter if the public doesn’t once again embrace them.