The initial dedication of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, back in 2002, set off a few bombshells, as critics questioned why $300,000 of taxpayers' money was spent on a celebration, complete with fireworks, for an unfinished building.
But Linda Kopecky remembers the dedication differently than most who simply cried hubris. She saw big money being spent to celebrate -- of all things -- a library. And she was envious.
"I think back on what we could have done with that money," says Kopecky, board president for Springfield's public library system.
As money and attention has been lavished on the new library and museum project, Springfield's other downtown library and its small branches have been left to languish. For the last several years the city has consistently decreased the public library's budget, forcing reductions in materials, staffing, and hours.
These cutbacks occurred at a time when public libraries in cities across the nation were busy modernizing with new technologies like wireless Internet access and automated checkout machines. The long-held image of libraries as stodgy, mothballed, and restrictive underwent a makeover as comfy couches, cafes, and restaurants were brought in to reflect the popularity of big-box bookstore chains.
Springfield has fallen far behind the times, even earning itself a reputation known throughout the region for unnecessarily starving its public library system.
Springfield's underperformance was most recently highlighted in a 2003 study comparing its public libraries with those from a half-dozen other central Illinois cities.
The statistics, released by the Secretary of State's office, showed that of all the cities surveyed Springfield provided the lowest property tax rate for funding its libraries. Springfield's property tax rate for library funding is about 18 cents on the dollar, or one-third the size of Urbana's. This is significant as property-tax revenue accounts for more than 70 percent of the library's budget.
Matthew Kubiak, longtime director of the Bloomington Public Library, says libraries typically spend about 15 percent of their operating budget on materials like books and magazines. Springfield had spent nearly half that amount, the statistics showed.
"I'm not sure how they survive," says Kubiak. "They're so underfunded, it's incredible."
Tonight, when Lincoln Library Director Nancy Huntley makes her first of four budget presentations before the Springfield City Council, she won't be asking for much.
Huntley plans to request that the library's fiscal year '06 budget be cut by $100,000 compared to the current year's budget.If accepted, she says, it will enable her to fill some of the staffing positions left vacant in recent years.
Huntley's plan -- which she calls "pretty much a restored budget" -- reveals an agency so hard-hit that it's been cowed into submission. While Springfield's library director has come to expect annual budget cuts, libraries in other similarly sized Illinois cities have managed to thrive.
The city of Champaign next summer will begin construction of an estimated $29.4 million building to house its main public library -- tripling the size of its current facility. The new library, which will include a coffeehouse, is being paid for through recent increases in the city's sales and telecommunications taxes, according to Champaign Public Library Director Marsha Grove.
The city of Decatur, which is part of the same library consortium as Springfield, has made no budget cuts to its public libraries in recent years, according to Lee Ann Fisher, who heads the system. In fact, she says Decatur's libraries have consistently received 3 percent budget increases.
"The libraries even look run-down in Springfield," says Fisher. "I don't feel there is support for public libraries from the Springfield government or from Springfield citizens."
Kopecky admits that Springfield's library board has operated with a sense of resignation. "For a significant period of time the library board had the outlook that all they could do was take what was given to them," she says.
But Kopecky and Huntley say they are hopeful that the city's attitude toward its library system has changed. Kopecky points to the public outrage that met former Mayor Karen Hasara's plan in 2003 to close the branch libraries and relocate them into public schools.
"It will take time for us to turn things around," she says. "But there's an understanding now on the City Council that the public views the library as a priority."
Davlin spokesman Ernie Slottag says he is waiting to hear the library's budget presentation, and declined further comment.