By Rachel León
Imagine a newly remodeled facility that can serve as a venue for live music, theater productions, author talks and other cultural events that can be made available to community groups for a minimal fee. Now, add computer labs for teens to use, maybe a recording studio for public use, and the building’s price tag reading: Free. Sounds incredible, doesn’t it?
I’m not sure anyone would argue against this lovely vision. I would adore having such a facility to visit as part of the Rockford Public Library, but I, like many I have spoken to, have some concerns.
The main concern is simply, where in the library’s strained budget is there room for the expenses involved in the acquisition and upkeep of the Sullivan Center? Earlier this year, there was talk of closing branches and laying off employees. Meanwhile, there has been a large investment in Kindle reading devices — both for staff use and circulation — an investment that is projected to increase within the year, as well as the recent purchase of the computer program that provides the Explorer publication in an electronic format. The talk of the library taking on yet another expense begs the situation to be looked at closely.
There was a time when Rockford Public Library provided a large array of programming that would have greatly benefited from the Sullivan Center facility. A decade ago or so, the types of events the library was in the position to provide were phenomenal. The library brought in Lezra Martin, a motivational speaker whose life was, in part, chronicled in the award-winning film The Hurricane. The library sponsored the One Book, One Rockford program, and was sometimes able to bring that year’s author to town to speak. There was the annual Festival of Words, writing classes and wonderful author talks including one with award-winning author Lorrie Moore.
I see that time as the “Golden Age” of programming at Rockford Public Library, a time that would have benefited greatly from the offer for the Sullivan Center facility.
In comparison, we have entered what amounts to a “Depression” of programming with the recent move to an all-digital Explorer. The library previously offered a printed listing of what programs were offered, and now that information is only available online.
I spoke with one library employee who said the computer class attendance is practically non-existent, as the patrons who attend these classes can no longer read about them in the printed programming guide.
I, myself, have asked for paper copies of upcoming programs and have been told such copies are not available, nor can they be made available to me.
The move to the digital Explorer was recent, so long-term data do not exist, but recent numbers suggest a steady decline from the shift.
Adding to the “Depression,” the programming budget is not what it used to be, though our dedicated and talented library staff still put on wonderful programs.
Again, though, the major problem is that the programs are not adequately attended, which makes me question the need for the Sullivan Center. If programming will be limited without wide access to even knowing about such programs, what is the need of the new facility?
I have heard other concerns, including that perhaps there must be undisclosed issues with the building if the current owner is willing to hand the building over.
Others have said the Sullivan Center is a money pit and that the tax write-off from giving the library such a gift is greater than the property itself is worth. I’m unwilling to explore these concerns because I am admittedly largely ignorant of real estate and tax issues.
I also hear concerns about how the acquisition of the Sullivan Center is part of the library’s larger vision to move digital, as a result of Frank Novak’s controversial proposal that is labeled as a “Transitional Plan.” These concerns can certainly be understood after reading the proposals, which anyone can read on Support Our Library’s blogsite, http://saveourrockfordlibrary.blogspot.com.
With so many mounting concerns, it again begs the question — why now? Wouldn’t it be better to invest in offering both digital and paper copies of the Explorer publication if we want to raise programming attendance numbers?
In a June 26 article in the Rockford Register Star, Rockford Public Library Board President Paul Logli said: “I understand there is some concern that program numbers are down. It seems whatever we can do to improve the setting for programs and the type and variety of programs would be just what we need to bring those numbers back up.”
I support focusing on bringing the attendance numbers up, but feel the idea the numbers will rise with a change of setting seems misguided, if not naïve.
The public is invited to attend an Open House from 6 to 8 p.m., Tuesday, July 31, to tour the Sullivan Center, 118 N. Main St. The last hour will be a forum where community members can ask questions about the acquisition and raise concerns. I urge anyone who has questions to attend the Open House and express their concerns to the library board and administration.
Rachel León is a writer who lives in Rockford and depends on the services Rockford Public Library provides. She is the founder of SOL, which formerly stood for Save Our Library and is now Support Our Library.
From the July 25-31, 2012, issue