Mark McKenney: Providence Community Library is Too Important To Underfund

Thursday, October 30, 2014


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This summer, Providence Community Library celebrated its fifth birthday. It’s been my privilege to serve on its Board of Directors since the beginning, and, for the last two years, as President. The Board’s most important responsibility is to ensure that the library has sufficient income to carry out its mission. Given the City’s lack of financial resources, the task has proved to be a considerable challenge.

PCL came into being in 2009, after Providence Public Library announced that it could no longer maintain most of the city’s small but vitally important community libraries. A dedicated group of supporters came to the rescue and struck a deal with City: the community branches would be run under the management of a separate, nonprofit organization, and with help of City funds, the Providence Community Library was born.

PCL isn’t part of the municipal government; it provides services to the City on a contractual basis. From the beginning, PCL was forced to operate on a meager budget, and when the City fell on lean times, it cut the fledgling library’s funding back even further. Thanks to incredible volunteer efforts, careful spending and an active fundraising program, the library has continued to provide valuable services, albeit on a bare bones budget.  

This year, the City restored some funding to PCL – but only back to the level we were at three years ago.  It is a sad fact: the City of Providence provides funding to PCL at a level that is below what comparable cities give to their libraries. Warwick, Cranston, Hartford CT and Worcester MA all provide more than Providence does, both per capita and as a percentage of the city budget.In fact, when compared to the rest of the 10 largest cities in New England, our state capital ranks dead last in terms of the percentage of the city's budget devoted to library services.

As a non-profit, PCL can raise additional funds privately. And it does, through annual fundraising  and some impressive grant writing efforts that recently resulted in a prestigious $250,000 National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, as well as substantial awards from the Champlin Foundations, the latter funding badly needed renovations and updates to one of our historic library buildings. Unlike municipal libraries, PCL can stretch city dollars and obtain grants and donations to help expand services. But due to years of underfunding, it still has a “structural” deficit. The Library needs more money if it is to provide the top-notch services that Providence so desperately needs, as well as reasonable, competitive salaries for its talented and highly trained staff.  

So why is PCL so important?  

Neighborhood libraries offer a wealth of resources, knowledge and opportunities all under one roof. When someone is looking for a job, the first stop is the library. PCL provides vital access to technology for patrons on low incomes with no computers. We help the unemployed look for jobs and communicate with employers. We offer programs in reading literacy, computer literacy, and English as a Second Language (ESL), improving life skills and career prospects for people of all ages.

The library is the heart of the neighborhood. Just ask our community partners – they’ll tell you we’re their first stop for programs and information. We’re a safe haven in tough neighborhoods where many families do not have easy access to transportation. From 4pm to 7pm on school days, widely recognized by authorities as the most dangerous time for kids to be out on the streets, PCL provides after-school programming to keep children educated, occupied and safe.

Providence is at war with low reading scores.  Less than half of the city’s fourth graders are reading at grade level. That’s alarming: children who are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade are up to 13 times more likely to drop out of school. Some children have no books at all in their homes. That’s where PCL comes in. We work closely with the school district. We provide a summer reading program that’s tripled its numbers in as many years. And early learning programs like Ready For K prepare our youngest children for kindergarten.

Libraries cost money. But good cities provide good funding for libraries.

We are about to elect a new Mayor and City Council. If we want our libraries to continue to excel, to respond to our needs, our elected representatives must fund them - the way they should be funded!

PCL has achieved remarkable things during its first five years. Despite the odds, we have not only survived, but thrived. However, the City must support its community library at an appropriate level of funding so that it continues to keep patrons educated, employed and entertained. Last place is never the spot to be in. Providence ... step it up!

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Mark McKenney is President of the Board of Directors at Providence Community Library.


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