Will merger solve library's problems?

If a proposed merger of Hennepin County and Minneapolis libraries takes place, patrons may enjoy longer library hours and the re-opening of three branch libraries.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Labor

David and Jack of St. Croix Montessori school are a little upset. The two kids have just traveled from east of Woodbury to the new Minneapolis Central Library, more than a 45-minute drive. "We wanted to get some good books to research when we got back to school," says Jack, "but it was closed."

When asked how that makes them feel, they respond with their shoulders sagging: "Bad...depressed...discouraged."

Closed Mondays
Within a year of opening its brand-new Central Library, the Minneapolis Public Library was forced to cut back on hours in order to stay within budget. The entire system is now closed on Mondays, but hopes to restore those hours if it's incorporated into the Hennepin County Library.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

As their chauffeur for the day, Mary Roysem, explains, it never even occurred to them that the shiny new Minneapolis Central Library would be closed on a Monday.

"When we spoke to a lady coming in she said it was for budgetary reasons and that's sad," says Roysem. "That's harsh." Minneapolis Public Library Director Kit Hadley agrees that the budget cutbacks the library has suffered over the past three years have been harsh. But she believes merging the city's libraries with Hennepin County could put an end to that.

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"It's been such an anomaly that in a city that has been rated either first or second for many years in terms of literacy to have the library system in this position," says Hadleny. "But public libraries don't do any better than their parent political jurisdiction, and Minneapolis is in a very, very challenging situation in terms of its budget."

Gratia Countryman
Gratia Countryman, shown here in 1945, was head librarian for the Minneapolis Public Library. She worked to bring reading and literacy to the area by using a mobile library system and establishing reading rooms in buildings close to where people lived and worked.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The Minneapolis Public Library suffers from not just a lack of funds, but a lack of taxpayers. One hundred years ago, 90 percent of Hennepin County residents lived in Minneapolis.

In the 1920s, it was Minneapolis Library Director Gratia Countryman who planted the seed that eventually gave flower to the Hennepin County Library. Worried about the people outside the city who had no access to books, she started Minnesota's first bookmobile and delivered books to more than 100 locations in the county.

But now, two-thirds of the county's residents live outside Minneapolis. Their tax dollars go to the county, not the city. Advocates for a merger say it's time for Hennepin County to come to the rescue of Minneapolis.

Minneapolis City Council President Barb Johnson says she sees it as both a crisis and an opportunity. She says Hennepin County has a lot to gain from the merger, including $8.8 million that the city will turn over to the county, several nicely renovated branch libraries and a brand-new Central library.

Kit Hadley
Minneapolis Public Library director Kit Hadley says the library has suffered under heavy budget cuts over the past three years which forced her to cut a third of the library's staff and close three branch libraries.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

"So we're bringing a lot to the dance here," says Johnson. "We're not beggars looking for a handout. We want to have our system on better financial footing long into the future and this offers us this chance to do this."

Johnson says ultimately, all library patrons will benefit. They would have to search only one online database to find books they need, and the interlibrary loan system would be streamlined.

County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin agrees. He believes the financially strapped Minneapolis library system has left a significant portion of the county poorly served, and that's a concern for the entire county.

McLaughlin is championing the proposed merger before the county board. But he says it won't be easy.

"The suburban Hennepin library system has been a very robust system," says McLaughlin, "and the county commissioners here are concerned that by combining with Minneapolis we might compromise the quality and level of service that's provided to constituents. So they're worried; they want to make sure that doesn't happen. And I agree with that. We want to make sure that we create a high quality library system for the entire county."

Checking out the space
Less than a year ago the Minneapolis Public Library opened its brand-new flagship library downtown. Now the building may become part of the Hennepin County Library as part of a proposed merger.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

The hope is that over the long term, the merged library system would cost less money to run because it would eliminate needless duplication of resources.

McLaughlin says detailed financial analysis will be required to reassure skeptics that the merger can happen in a way that benefits both the city and county.

Before that analysis begins in earnest, Hennepin County commissioners must decide whether to seek permission from the state government to merge.