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Happily Ever After?
City officials once foretold a decimation of neighborhood libraries. Then they changed their tune.
Villard Square Public Library photo by Engberg Anderson

Looking for dramatic conflict, resourceful characters and a surprise ending?

You could pick up a good book from your nearest branch of the Milwaukee Public Library. Or you could check out the story of the libraries themselves.

Just a few years ago, city and library officials crafted a tale of grave peril that could be averted only by a bold rescue. Battered by budgetary storms, the officials slashed neighborhood library hours and threatened to close two of the 12 branches within the city’s system, stirring angry protests.

Under pressure from both aldermen and residents, the Library Board endorsed a plan in early 2010 to reshape the branch system, and thereby avoid a more drastic contraction of the old system. Some of the branches would share buildings with housing, retail or office space, and others would be merged into larger facilities supplemented by small “express libraries.” In the makeover, only a few neighborhood libraries would remain in their current form.

Since the Library Board signed off on the sweeping changes, the first mixed-use library has opened on the Northwest Side, a second is under construction on the East Side, and the 2014 city budget includes funding for two more mixed-use branches, with an eventual goal of having six such facilities within the library system. Renovations of three existing libraries are also planned, and the first express library will open this spring at the Westlawn Gardens public housing complex. But the most controversial idea – merging neighborhood branches into larger libraries that would serve wider areas – has quietly slipped off the table.

Mayor Tom Barrett explains the about-face by pointing to success at the first mixed-use facility to open in the city, Villard Square, a library that shares a building with multigenerational housing. Despite measuring some 2,100 square feet smaller than the old branch, patron visits rose 62 percent in 2012, versus 2010, and circulation jumped 77 percent. “Villard Square has been so successful that we’ve concluded we can retain the neighborhood libraries without consolidation and serve the community,” he says.

Perhaps, but financial and political calculations have also helped to close the book on library mergers. The 2010 plan was designed to cut between $500,000 and $1.1 million in annual operating costs. But annual costs declined by about $1.4 million between 2009 and 2012 – without any branch consolidations. The savings came through juggling staff schedules, eliminating positions through attrition, introducing self-checkout systems and improving energy efficiency, according to Library Director Paula Kiely and Budget Director Mark Nicolini.

Meanwhile, budget analysts calculated the hub-style libraries, each of which would cost $13 million, weren’t so cost-effective after all. “We just weren’t convinced the area libraries were worth the investment,” Nicolini says.

And maybe not worth the political cost, either. In 2004, neighborhood protests forced the Common Council to reject former Mayor John Norquist’s proposal to close the Villard Avenue Library, and more resistance sprang up when Barrett suggested closing two never-named libraries as a way to balance the 2009 budget. Closing libraries is difficult at best and perhaps politically infeasible, according to Council President Willie Hines, Ald. Michael Murphy and Ald. Nik Kovac, all of whom once thought the city might have to consolidate the sprawling branch system.

Also, cutting the $22 million library budget would make only a small dent in the city’s $1.4 billion in spending, compared to the system’s importance to the community, Kovac and Murphy say. Still, the latter cautions, trends in library use and funding could change yet again before the council finalizes more developments like Villard Square.

The final chapter has yet to be written.

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