If you were in Duluth six years ago, you may recall the budget crisis that reduced library hours and staffing. The branch libraries were open only two days a week. Service levels were reduced due to staffing cuts. Even though programs and events are a core library service, the only program we could manage to keep going was weekly storytime at the main library.
Then came the Legacy Amendment.
In 2008, Minnesota voters approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, which added .0375 percent to the state sales tax rate to pay for environmental and arts projects, including library programs. The amount dedicated to arts and cultural programming was 20 percent of the total, and public libraries were only to receive a small amount of that 20 percent. Still, this additional source of funding had a big impact, making it possible for the Duluth Public Library to offer educational, inspiring and entertaining events.
Legacy money is distributed to the state’s public library systems, including the Arrowhead Library System that serves our region. The money may be spent “only on arts, arts education and arts access, and to preserve Minnesota’s history and cultural heritage.” It cannot be used to buy books, replace computers or pay staff.
Beginning in 2009, this critical funding brought programming back to life at the Duluth Public Library. The Arrowhead Library System found and organized a wide array of program options, and libraries could choose what to offer based on community interest. The fact that Arrowhead made all of the arrangements was especially important at a time of reduced library staffing.
Some of the programs were very successful while others were less so. Among the events of which we are most proud was the museum pass program. A $29,000 investment supported 2,544 participants regionwide last year. The program offered free passes to various museums in the Arrowhead region, including Glensheen. According to participant feedback, more than half of the people using the passes were visiting the venues for the first time.
In November 2013, the Duluth Art Institute did a metal-tooling workshop at the Main Library and at the West Duluth Branch. An investment of $794 allowed 61 people to participate. Kids ages 7 and older were invited to bring in a special photo and to create a frame for it.
In June 2014, Climb Theater presented “Stubby the Elephant” at all three Duluth libraries. A total of $1,116 was used and 131 people attended. The production was based on Rudyard Kipling’s “The Elephant Child” and was created to help children ages 3 to 8 develop early literacy and reading-readiness skills.
Not every program generated large attendance, of course, and we learned some things along the way. We learned that people enjoy active, participative programs. Frederick Blanch’s talk about his travels and photographs received lower reviews than the photography workshop where participants brought their own cameras and actually took photos. We also learned that presenters with broad experience have greater appeal. Henry Boucha’s presentation was very popular because he spoke about professional and Olympic hockey as well as the Ojibwe culture. This combination brought in many people who usually don’t attend library programs.
Is this focus on programs and events - rather than solely on books - a sign that public libraries have lost sight of their original purpose? Not at all. Public libraries were founded to help people improve their lives through learning. Many years ago the primary way to learn was to read books. Today, books continue to be the most popular offering at the Duluth Public Library, but there are many other options for learning. You can listen to a CD, watch a movie, use a database, surf the Internet and, yes, go to an event.
In 2015, nearly seven years after the Legacy Amendment was passed, the Duluth Public Library is a vibrant, bustling hub of community activity. The branches are again open five days a week. Public computer use at the West Duluth Branch is at an all-time high with 13,000 sessions last year. Storytime at the Mount Royal Branch brings in 50 to 80 people per week.
Visits to the downtown library totaled nearly 300,000 in 2014.
Legacy funding is no longer the only source of programs at the library. Donations from the Friends of the Library and the Duluth Library Foundation make it possible for some type of program or event to take place at the downtown library nearly every day.
Credit for this turnaround is widely shared. It belongs to voters who approved the parks referendum a few years ago, to city officials who place a high value on library services, to generous contributions from the library’s supporting organizations, and to dedicated staff members who care deeply about their work.
But I would argue that some of the credit belongs to the Legacy Amendment as well. The programs funded by the Legacy Amendment have made our library more robust and better able to help enrich the lives of people in the community.
Carla Powers is manager of the Duluth Public Library.