BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — The future of four Birmingham libraries remains uncertain, at least for now.
The four branches — in Ensley, East Ensley, North Avondale, and Titusville — were singled out for potential closure in a letter sent Oct. 8 by Birmingham Public Library Board President Eunice Rogers to city council members. In the letter, Rogers wrote that the libraries have “weathered the many challenges placed before us.”
“Now we are challenged with supporting Mayor Woodfin’s vision of decreasing the number of Birmingham Public Library physical locations,” the letter continued.
After significant public backlash in the days following the letter’s publication, Woodfin accused Rogers of “playing games.”
“I haven’t spoken with President Rogers,” Woodfin said in a statement released Oct. 11. “I have not been afforded the opportunity to share my vision with her or anyone on the library board.”
Asked whether the mayor supports or opposes the closure of any physical library location, Director of Communications Rick Journey said “the statement speaks for itself.”
The statement, however, did not address the mayor’s position on closures. Instead, in addition to criticizing Rogers, Woodfin said that “the board should have an honest conversation with the public and open communications with the council and me.”
Journey also provided a second letter from Rogers dated Oct. 11 in which she wrote that she had not held “a detailed conversation” with the mayor before singling out library branches for potential closure.
Woodfin, though, has made extensive public comments about how the library system “needs to make some very tough choices,” including about closures. These comments, according to one library board member, were part of what led to the controversial proposal to shutter the four branches.
“As a former school board member, I watched the whole process of combining schools, closing one or closing two and then opening up a new site because of a population decrease,” Woodfin said in an interview with AL.com columnist Roy S. Johnson in the days after his re-election. “People don’t want to let go of things, and man, I genuinely understand that. In order for us to provide top-of-the-line customer and community service as it relates to learning, educating, and sharing of information, our library system needs to make some very tough unpopular decisions.”
Woodfin went on to lay out several reasons that physical library locations, in his view, may need to be closed.
“Resources are spread too thin. If you have a library with a 1960s or 1970s model, but does not get the necessary foot traffic, and is literally in proximity of another library only one mile down the street, should both of those libraries be open? Or should they join and combine them better service for the community?”
He concluded his comments on libraries by citing limited tax revenue as a reason for making “unpopular decisions.”
“I try to manage expectations, and I don’t go around picking fights,” Woodfin said. “However, I want people to understand the city of Birmingham has limited tax dollars. At a certain point, if it comes down to it, we’re willing to make tough, unpopular decisions if it’s the right thing to do. I’ll repeat myself: If it comes down to it, this administration is willing to make the tough unpopular decision if it’s the right thing to do. If it’s right, we will deal with it.”
During Woodfin’s administration, funding for library services has significantly decreased while funding for other services has gone up. Since he took office, library spending under Woodfin has gone down about 28%, a decrease of just over $4 million, according to city records. In that same period, spending on police has gone up by about 5%, an increase of nearly $5 million.
Rob Burton, who was a member of Woodfin’s transition team, said he’s discouraged by his former boss’ actions involving the libraries.
“I have been very disappointed in Mayor Woodfin over the last two years as it concerns his budgetary priorities,” Burton said. “In 2017, Woodfin ran on increasing budgets for the Birmingham Public Library, including a proposal to prioritize spending from bonds on infrastructure projects for our parks and libraries. Over Woodfin’s administration, we have seen heavy cuts in those areas.”
This is not the first time city leaders have threatened to close library branches in Birmingham. In 2010, Mayor William Bell proposed closing five branches in Slossfield, Inglenook, Ensley, East Ensley and North Avondale. In 1981, city leaders proposed the closure of six branches, but public pushback kept the branches open, even leading the city to embrace a tax increase that helped to fund the system for years.
During both those periods, and in the debate currently underway, the history of the library system, particularly during segregation, has become a subject of discussion. Because of the building of segregated facilities, some argue, Birmingham’s library system is too large.
Carol Clarke, one of the newest members of the Birmingham City Council, said that there is no such thing as “too many” libraries.
“It’s like somebody saying we have too many parks,” Clarke said. “How is that possible? When you think about how libraries have come to function in our communities: They’re digital access points. They’re safe havens for kids who sometimes live in hell. How can you really take that away?”
Still, there are problems the system must face. Library board member Kim Richardson said issues with the system are numerous and long-standing.
“We have issues that are related to facilities,” she said. “We have issues that are related to our budget. We have issues that are related just to the changing nature of the use of libraries in our city and in communities around the nation.”
Woodfin’s comments reflected some of these issues, but it’s unclear that the closure of library locations, particularly those detailed in Rogers’ letter, would address them in any meaningful way.
One example is low foot traffic, something Mayor Woodfin mentioned in his post-election interview. Data from the library system does show an overall decrease in foot traffic. Since 2017, the number of library visits has decreased by over 10%. However, the locations singled out for closure do not have the lowest foot traffic in the system. In fact, two of these locations — East Ensley and North Avondale — were among only five locations that saw an increase in foot traffic during this period (both around 18%).
The proposed closures could also impact minority residents more than others in the city. The four locations mentioned in Rogers’ letter are located in areas where nearly every resident is nonwhite. In the census tract that includes the North Avondale library location, for example, 94% of residents are nonwhite. In the census tract where East Ensley’s branch is located, that number is upwards of 97%.
These discrepancies — between leadership’s perception of the issues and strategies that could actually solve them — may be worked out in the coming weeks and months as a newly sworn-in city council begins to consider the issues. Until then, these four library branches remain at risk of closure, even if not in the immediate future.
Councilor LaTonya Tate, another new face on the city’s top legislative body, said she’s ready to further investigate the issue, adding that she’s already spoken to the president of a neighborhood association about the potential closures.
“I want to hear the reasons for the closures and see what types of alternatives are out there before we make a decision that drastic,” Tate said.
Richardson said that in the wake of the recent controversy, she and other board members want to hear from the public about the proposals. Her comments came after a specially-called meeting of the library board that was almost entirely held in “executive session,” meaning the meeting was closed to the public and media, who were asked to move to another floor of the building.
“What’s really important at this time is to reopen conversations,” Richardson said.
Birmingham Public Library board meetings are held at 4:30 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month. Meetings have recently been held via teleconference due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Richardson said that they would likely move in person for future meetings. In-person meetings of the board are typically held in the Arrington Auditorium of Central Library at 2100 Park Place.