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More than 30 years ago, the state hired Robert Rohlf, a consultant based in Minnesota, to evaluate the San Diego city and county library systems. He recommended consolidating the two departments into one at least in part because of budget pressures. It didn’t happen.

Now, the city’s library system remains one of the first targets when city leaders need big budget cuts. Last month, Mayor Jerry Sanders proposed hacking already reduced branch library hours to 18.5 a week to help plug next year’s deficit. City Council members have made clear those reductions won’t happen, but Sanders’ plan highlights the department’s continued withering.

Rohlf says he has returned to San Diego three times since his first report, most recently last year to examine the building of the new downtown central library. We turned to Rohlf, who has consulted on more than 300 library projects, to help understand the history of San Diego libraries.

Is there any sort of trend that has stood out in your mind when you’ve evaluated the city library system?

The one thing that was clear to me is that the library has never been on the high list of being financially supported compared to libraries of their population size across the United States. They’re below the average in their financial support by at least 10 percent or more.

What were the reasons that were given to you for that?

I don’t know if there were any ever given to me. Just that that’s the way it’s been supported in San Diego. It’s kind of been up and down. It’s surprising how many libraries are better supported when you take a look at them. For example, Miami. I would never think that Miami would be a higher supported library than San Diego on a per capita basis, but it is.

Is there a way out for San Diego with respect to its library system?

I don’t know the way out for them because all I keep reading about is the terrible financial situation the city is in and has been in for some time. They’re not just picking on libraries. It’s everything.

The remedy is painful because you only have so much money. The only caution I would say is don’t dilute the service so much that you don’t have any service left to give.

In your first report from the early ’80s you had talked about consolidating the county and city libraries. Is that still something that’s a reasonable option?

I think it is a reasonable option. It’s happening all over the country. For example, Minneapolis just merged with the Hennepin County library, which surrounded it. It’s somewhat similar to San Diego. The county did it essentially to save the city financially.

Is there anything else you want to add or emphasize at all?

I don’t envy the financial situation the city is in. I just think I should caution: Do not put so much water in the soup, so to speak, that there is no more substance left. I think if they’re going to have to cut the library, and I would hope they wouldn’t, that they think carefully about how they do it and not just whack everything the same amount.

Interview conducted and edited by Liam Dillon, who can be reached at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663. Follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/dillonliam.

Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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