New Jersey Urban Libraries: Challenges and Strategies for Change

The Urban Libraries Section of the New Jersey Library Association was established to address the unique needs of urban public libraries of the state. As the need and demand for services in urban areas continues to grow, even as funding declines and other problems proliferate, the leaders of New Jersey’s urban libraries see the need to articulate the challenges facing their institutions so that they can communicate their issues to others and work together to devise new solutions.

Many of the problems facing urban libraries also confront libraries in suburban and rural settings. What distinguishes the urban situation is the scope and severity of the problems exacerbated by the critical, complex and diverse needs of the populations served. For example, while homelessness is not limited to urban centers, the numbers of homeless in cities is much greater than those in other areas. While many communities in New Jersey are experiencing an influx of new immigrants, cities tend to draw those who are less educated and have more limited job skills. While all public libraries must deal with local funding issues, relationships with schools, facilities needs, and collections, technology, and staffing issues, urban libraries face factors and forces that must be dealt with in each of these areas.

State Librarian, Norma Blake, asked the Urban Libraries Section to define the unique challenges urban libraries face and to propose strategies for change. Leslie Burger, President of NJLA, facilitated a meeting of section members (list of attendees appended) on January 11th, where they offered their observations and suggestions. Cindy Czesak and Marianne Avery compiled a draft report of their consensus views. The draft was distributed for review, discussed at a second meeting on February 8th, and then revised to incorporate changes and to add new material that members recommended.

This report highlights the critical issues facing New Jersey’s urban libraries and provides specific recommendations for actions. Urban Libraries Section members, NJLA, or the State Library, can simply and speedily implement some of these initiatives. Others, though, require more long-term and concerted development by urban librarians working with these agencies and others. The Urban Libraries section requests, therefore that the State Library convene a summit of urban libraries and their supporters to provide the impetus for that more expansive effort.

Challenges and Strategies for Change

Challenge: Funding

The tax base in urban areas in New Jersey is weak, with few commercial ratables. As a result, property tax rates are high, but are still insufficient to meet the financial needs of the city. School funding takes a large proportion of the local budget, as it does in most communities. Urban libraries are forced, then, to compete with other city agencies for a meager slice of an inadequate fiscal pie.

  • Ensure that a percentage of economic development funds are earmarked for urban libraries
  • Identify other sources of funds already available in communities, such as Community Development Block Grants or Urban Enterprise Zone funds, and share this information among urban libraries. NJLA should offer a program on "Where's the Money?"
  • Gather and disseminate information on successful models of urban libraries that are catalysts for economic development and partners in community progress. Train urban library directors and trustees in advocacy methods and in areas of municipal funding (e.g., bonding regulations, Urban Enterprise Zones) so that they can effectively promote local initiatives that feature the public library as the keystone to development. Promote this concept to chambers of commerce and real estate agencies. NJLA should offer a program on "Libraries and Economic Development."
  • Revise the State Library’s Per Capita State Aid report, to include the cost of security staff to meet staffing requirements.
  • Revise the State Per Capita Aid formula. The Urban Libraries Section is eager to work with the State Library to analyze the impact of the current formula on all types of libraries, in all locales. They strongly recommend that all aid be based on need, using a formula that considers equalized valuation in the calculation for aid.
  • Provide consultation assistance to urban libraries to evaluate the merits and negotiate the terms of joining a county library system. Nine of the urban libraries in Abbott districts with the lowest equalized valuation per capita can potentially join county library systems. Impartial and expert assistance are needed to ensure that the interests of all parties to any such merger are served.

Challenge: Public Schools/Public Libraries

With few exceptions, New Jersey urban libraries serve students in Abbott districts (a list accompanies this report). While the state government has recognized that Abbott school districts have pressing needs that warrant special funding, no similar mandate funds support of the public libraries in those districts. In many urban areas, the public library serves de facto as the school library; the school library may either not exist at all or may be poorly staffed, with obsolete collections and little or no technology or programs. Most charter schools and private schools lack any library service. In addition, the requirement for free preschool and full day kindergarten classes in these school districts has also placed a large burden on the public library. Urban schools turn to urban public libraries to provide collections, programs, services, and outreach.

  • Mandate that a portion of the state funding allocated to Abbott school districts be given to the public libraries in those districts to support collections, programs, and services to students
  • Fund urban public libraries for support of programs and services provided to preschools and childcare centers. Representatives of the Governor’s Office should work with the Department of Education to implement a mechanism to achieve this funding.
  • Investigate Federal programs, such as "No Child Left Behind,” that are well suited to the role of a public library. Both preschool and after school literacy programs are highlighted in this initiative and both mesh well with the mission of the urban public library. The State Library should provide leadership for development of a comprehensive program that can be applied to this initiative.
  • Identify foundation and corporate grants that target child and youth achievement in urban areas. Disseminate information and encourage collaboration among urban libraries statewide.

Challenge: Facilities

Since New Jersey’s urban public libraries were among the first in the state, their facilities are among the oldest. Buildings that are designated historic sites, or, are located in historic districts, merit careful stewardship but the special attention they require makes them more expensive to maintain and restore. Many of these facilities need extensive repair and rehabilitation. When funds are sought for construction in public libraries, these factors merit special consideration so that urban libraries can address these pressing facilities needs.

  • Provide funding for rehabilitation and renovation. Revise regulations regarding size and per square foot costs.
  • Permissive uses should include funds for removal of lead, asbestos and other hazardous material.
  • Reduce the local match of funds to a 1:1 basis, or include a sliding scale for matching funds, based on ability to pay.
  • Establish a separate construction fund for urban libraries. The ability to repay bond funds may realistically be part of a grant award, especially if the city is near its bonding limit.
  • Provide consultant assistance to devise long-term facilities planning. Facilities plans would enable the libraries to take advantage of funds such as Community Development Block Grants.

Challenge: Staff Recruitment, Retention, and Training

As the gap widens between the number of professional librarians available nationwide and the number needed to staff today’s libraries, all libraries struggle to recruit and retain quality staff. Urban libraries face the additional obstacle of the common perception, and occasional reality, that urban centers are (at worst) unsafe and (at best) unattractive environments in which to work. In many cases, salaries are lower in urban centers than they are in other areas. New librarians are not as motivated to see the satisfaction inherent in urban library work. The rewards of doing important work for those most in need has not been well communicated to new professionals. At the same time, many current staff have become dispirited after working in daunting circumstances for years. They need revitalized skills and fresh perspectives. Recruitment and retention are even more difficult in municipalities that have ordinances requiring residency of city workers. This restricts the pool of potential applicants even further. For all staff, training and continuing education are critically needed.

  • Establish incentives for professional librarians and library school students to work in urban public libraries. Students could be awarded credits for hours worked in an urban library. The libraries would benefit not only from the work done but also by the potential introduction of a future employee to the urban environment.
  • Create an Urban Job Corps to provide support for new graduates to work in urban libraries.
  • Consider allocating funds from LSTA funding for scholarships. At one point, LSCA funds were available for full scholarships to graduate school in library science.
  • Recruit support staff to move into professional positions. Fund scholarships for Library Assistants to attend library school.
  • In addition to training available at the Regional Library Cooperatives' Training Centers, more complex and in depth training for topics such as network management is necessary. Fund grants to upgrade skills, particularly in technology.
  • Educate the faculty at the graduate schools of library science regarding the roles and needs of public libraries, in general, and the urban public library, in particular.

Challenge: Literacy

The incidence of illiteracy in urban areas is endemic and far greater than urban libraries’ capacity to remedy. Literacy is a lifelong learning challenge, spanning the life cycle from preschool, teen and family programs to adults and seniors. Urban libraries respond with an array of programs but local efforts vary widely and may be less efficient because of a lack of coordination and duplication of effort.

  • Convene a summit of literacy providers, including libraries, community agencies and schools, to highlight best practices, identify alternatives and offer opportunities for collaborative programs.
  • Share models of successful programs.
  • Facilitate collaboration and coordination among literacy providers.

Challenge: Collection Preservation, Digitization, and Access

New Jersey’s urban public libraries serve the oldest communities in the state. Their collections are rich with history, not only of their own municipality but of nearby areas, as well as of the state. In order to be prudent stewards of this heritage, urban libraries need funds to carefully preserve the rare, unique and fragile materials in their care. Digitization now provides the means to provide global access to our state’s heritage. Ideally, digitization and preservation should be undertaken concurrently.

  • The State Library should develop a statewide plan to coordinate the digitization and preservation of unique and historical resources. This plan should include partnering with other state agencies. A survey should be completed to determine priorities for this effort. LSTA funds should be allocated to fund this statewide project and ensure that best practices and standards will be adhered to.
  • Revitalize the Advisory Committee on Preservation and Access. This loosely organized group included representatives from museums and archives, as well as the library community and did accomplish some prioritization of important projects.
  • Fund local libraries to preserve, digitize, and provide access to the resources identified as priorities in the plan.
  • Provide technical assistance to libraries for digitization projects.

Challenge: Marketing

All libraries need to better communicate their mission and message to the public and to funders. Urban libraries, in particular, suffer from lack of a positive image in the media.

  • Prominently feature urban libraries in the statewide marketing campaign and the @ your library initiative
  • Fund a public relations/marketing consultant whose service libraries could share.
  • Work within the League of Municipalities to heighten awareness of urban public libraries.

Challenge: Technology

Though much progress has been made in bridging the digital divide, much remains to be done. Residents in urban areas still lag behind other groups in the percentage of residents who own computers. For most city dwellers, the public library provides their sole access to technology. Most technology grants support the purchase of equipment but ignore the critical need for staff to maintain systems and to provide training for the public.

  • Provide grants for staff, maintenance and repair costs associated with library technology programs.
  • Identify corporate and foundation sources for funding of technology initiatives.
  • Support use of Library Network funds to negotiate fees and coordinate purchase of electronic resources.

Challenge: Targeted grant programs

Urban libraries would benefit greatly from grant programs targeted only for urban libraries to support preservation, collection maintenance, management issues, organizational issues, planning, and services to special populations.

  • Fund grant programs targeted only to urban libraries.
  • Provide consultant assistance from professionals familiar with the challenges of urban libraries

General recommendations

  • Diversity among urban communities

While urban libraries share many characteristics, they also vary widely in populations, priorities and potential. This report defines some common traits that can be addressed by statewide initiatives. Each library, however, faces unique local challenges that must be dealt with locally.

  • Bureaucratic barriers

The operations of most urban libraries are severely constrained by Department of Personnel regulations, union contracts, levels of local government bureaucracy and a long history of complex local government relations. These forces often impede progress and must be considered in any programs.

  • Awareness of urban issues

The Urban Libraries Section seeks to raise awareness of urban issues to mitigate the unintended negative impact of some actions by the State Library on urban libraries. One example cited above is the exemption of the cost of security staff in the calculation of state aid. Another example is the Technology Grants that were part of the Libraries 2000 initiative. While population was a factor in the amount of awards, need of the library and the need of the population served (i.e., the digital divide) should have been a factor.

The members of the Urban Libraries Section are encouraged by and grateful to the State Librarian for initiating this dialogue on strategies to improve public libraries. We intend to expand on specific recommendations listed above, particularly in recommending other divisions of state or federal government as options. Additionally, a survey of “best practices” in New Jersey’s urban libraries will be compiled and the report distributed widely. In these ways, we hope to continue to work together for the advancement of our libraries and our communities.

NJLA Urban Library Section Meeting
January 14, 2002
February 8, 2002

Leslie Burger
President, New Jersey Library Association; Director, Princeton Public Library
Pat Tumulty
Executive Director, New Jersey Library Association
Marianne K. Avery - Newark Public Library
Melissa A. Banks - Somerville Public Library
Robert Belvin - New Brunswick Public Library
William Breedlove - Union City Public Library
Ingrid Bruck - Long Branch Public Library
Cindy Czesak - Paterson Public Library
Joseph DaRold - Plainfield Public Library
Dorothy M. Key - East Orange Public Library
Madathikudy Kuriakose - Trenton Public Library
Kathleen Mollica - Passaic Public Library
Carolyn Ryan Reed - East Orange Public Library
Robert Stewart - Asbury Park Public Library
Joyce Willis - Trenton Public Library