An open letter regarding the Kennett Public Library
● By Steven Hoffman
I would like to take the opportunity to share some thoughts as a resident, former Kennett Square Borough Council member, a former council president, and a proponent of vibrant libraries.
How long can we, as a community, wait for library board dysfunction to end? This upcoming debate is not about good versus evil, but about governance, strategic thinking, fiscal responsibility and best practices. These are challenging times for libraries, but like many independent book dealers who have rebounded and are now flourishing in changing times, so can our library.
In the Kennett area for the most of the past decade we have off and on debated the “library issue.” But what major new policy initiative have we seen—only the ill-timed name change!
An oft-heard argument against reducing or cutting off funding is that it will hurt the kids who use the library. A more relevant point is how has the library board hurt the kids, staff and the community by dividing the community time and time again? How many more architectural visions for a new library will we witness? How many fund drives for a new library will falter? How many more opportunities for substantial funding will be lost? These are the more relevant questions.
To the library board, I say just advocating that we give more money to build a bigger, better library is not a strategic plan or vision.
The library staff has been placed in an unfair and untenable position. They must defend the policies of a board that has failed them as it has failed the community. The staff has done a good job under difficult circumstances and should be commended. The issue now is how can the library be best governed? How will the board represent the diverse elements of the community, and offer increased direct representation to the municipalities it serves? Direct representation means that those representatives would be appointed by the municipalities. And how can the library board also attract board members knowledgeable in fund raising and marketing? In short, how can it become a viable board?
The current board structure and makeup is not working. Under the past and current climate, we will not see major donors stepping forward. A name change will not fix that.
The library board should not obsess over a funding cut, but rather on how it got to this place. It should show courage and revamp its approach to governance, representation, and relations with municipalities. It should not be comfortable with a library that provides good services but rather decide what are the standards of excellence that should be used to evaluate the library’s role now and in the future.
When the “library issue” surfaced a decade or so ago, the borough was fearful of the impact it would have if the library moved. That leverage the library had has dissipated. Over the same time period, borough leadership embraced a vision and Kennett Square is revitalized and flourishing. Two approaches—one has worked one has worked, one has not.
It is time for change in library policy, whether that change comes voluntarily or through increased pressure.