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Sign of the economic times: Libraries see increased usage

Librarians say they see more people coming through their doors since the current economic crunch began two years ago.

Library budgets, however, have been cut or remained the same, requiring libraries to do more with less.

“As people cut budgets at home, they realize one of the places they can save money is at the library,” said State Librarian Martha Reid, noting the statewide trend of people using their libraries for Internet access and job hunting.

Librarians have heard of patrons increasing their use of their local libraries and tightening their belts by canceling Netflix subscriptions, Internet accounts, and taking fewer trips to bookstores.

To preserve the jobs of Brattleboro’s six full-time and eight part-time employees, Brooks Memorial Library Director Jerry Carbone chose to shave 24 hours off the part-time employees’ hours.

“Don’t get me wrong — it’s a reduction of services,” Carbone said.

New England libraries — compared to the rest of the United States — receive more funding through endowments than taxes, said Amy Howlett, library development consultant for the Vermont Department of Libraries. And Vermont has the most libraries per capita of all the states, Howlett said.

Libraries provide more than books. They are a public service — providing computers and Internet access, meeting space, DVDs and CDs and reference services. But a cut in a town’s budget often translates into a cut in municipal services.

According to a 2006-2007 economic analysis report by the Vermont Department of Libraries, the return on investment for every dollar spent by local and state governments is $5.36. The report estimated the total direct economic impact of Vermont public libraries at more than $75 million, while the actual cost of these services to state and local governments was $14 million.

Howlett said that 0.7 percent of funding for Vermont libraries operating funds come from state or federal sources, 72.9 percent come from municipal taxes and the remaining 27.8 percent from other local sources.

In 2007, the per capita support (found by dividing total tax support a library receives by the number of people in town) nationally was $31.68 per year, whereas Vermont’s was $23.35.

The funding numbers contrast with the statistics on library visits. Nationally, libraries saw 4.91 visits per year and Vermont, 6.19.

Howlett compares Vermont’s autonomous rural libraries versus one big library serving 30 smaller “outlet” libraries, explaining the disparities account for some of the difference between state and national statistics.

More patrons, smaller budgets

The Dover Free Library has a book, DVD and CD collection of 16,000. During the library’s 2008-09 fiscal year, circulation increased by 3,585, and WiFi and the library’s computers were the stars of the show.

“We are busy,” said John Flores, the library’s director. Saturday used to be the quiet catch-up day, “but now we’re packed,” he said.

The economy seems to be the main force behind the increase, but Flores said the library staff goes “all out” on programming as well.

“We’re always trying to attract people to our library,” he said.

The budget stayed much the same this year, said Flores, except for the town capping salary increases at 50 cents an hour. He said he has had to juggle his budget by adjusting line items.

According to Flores, the taxpayers support the library, and “we’re not too [fiscally] extravagant.”

“I’m not really going for more, I’m going for different,” said Meris Morrison, director of the Moore Free Library in Newfane, a private library serving the public.

The Moore building was deeded to the town with the stipulation no taxes be used for its operation.

Funding, which comes from fundraisers and donations, has remained relatively consistent at Moore. The library houses a collection of 10,000 and is open four hours a day except Sunday and Monday.

Morrison said she has seen a jump in patronage, specifically people using the WiFi. Patrons take advantage of the free wireless Internet even after hours, sitting outside with their laptops.

“In 2008, our circulation zoomed,” said Carol Waseleski, director of Pettee Memorial Library in Wilmington.

Over two years, the checkout rate for nonfiction at Pettee increased an average of 191 percent. DVDs were up 24 percent and kids’ items 30 percent. The daily count of patrons’ visits increased 23 percent.

Waseleski presented her data to the Selectboard during the fiscal year 2011 budgeting process and asked for more funds to expand the nonfiction and children’s collections. The Selectboard and taxpayers awarded her a budget increase.

“We appreciate [their] support and we hope we’re providing a good service in return,” said Waseleski.

She said Pettee is lucky in these hard times and doesn’t criticize librarians who have had to make the tough budget cuts.

Although she has not seen any definitive data from her vantage point in Montpelier, Reid has heard that generally smaller libraries are faring better than larger ones because their budgets represent a proportionally smaller part of their respective town budgets.

Tough choices

Brooks Memorial Library also experienced increased usage, including computer use, which has doubled since 2007, said Carbone.

He said Brooks has a lot of demand because, unlike other regions, southern Vermont doesn’t have a large college research library nearby.

Brooks, the third-largest Vermont library, fulfills the most interlibrary loan requests in the state, yet it had to cut $16,000 from its spending this year so the town could achieve a level-funded budget.

“The library cuts are the most visible, but other departments had cuts too,” Carbone said.

Carbone said the department heads decided where to make reductions. He chose to cut the equivalent of 24 personnel hours.

“I just didn’t want to do that [lay people off],” he said.

This decreased the library’s operation by six hours per week as of July 1, but he didn’t have to give any employees their walking papers.

He also submitted cuts in library resources but Town Manager Barbara Sondag left them at 2010 levels, he said.

Since the reductions went into effect, transactions at the library have dropped 5 percent from last year.

For Carbone, this is the third cut in hours since he started at Brooks as a reference librarian in 1978, when the library stayed open 68 hours a week. The library is now open 50 hours a week.

“Makes my stomach a little queasy,” he said, adding that after each cut, the library has never restored the lost access to the public, even after the economy recovers.

Normally, Town Meeting Representatives discuss reductions in the municipal budget during Brattleboro’s Representative Town Meeting, but Carbone said that this year it the discussion “was taken up with trash,” referring to the many hours of debate on the pay-as-you-throw trash disposal funding model.

“Even though I disagreed with the outcome [the cuts] and was disappointed that Town Meeting members did not discuss the implication of this service reduction, the process was fair and transparent,” Carbone said.

Long-term library issues

According to Howlett, Vermont libraries have long-term issues and future changes to negotiate.

Traditionally, library salaries tend to sit on the lower end of the pay scale, and smaller towns rely on volunteers more than the big cities.

Libraries are also adjusting to the e-government initiative for the Vermont Agency of Human Services (AHS).

In an effort to streamline operations, the AHS is steering individuals filing for state benefits to fill out forms and questions normally taken to caseworkers via the Internet. AHS has reached out to libraries to partner as a resource for benefit-seekers, which could increase library computer use and reference needs even more. 

But one national trend Vermont does not share is library closings.

To Reid’s knowledge, no libraries in Vermont have locked their doors. An interactive map at www.LosingLibraries.org, a website produced by Laura Solomon and Many Knapp, two Ohio librarians turned activists for the cause, and Library Journal,  illustrates the plight of U.S. libraries in other states.

“It’s devastating,” said Reid.

Carbone said it will be interesting to see how the reduction in hours at Brooks plays out after the summer vacation when students are back in school.

He doesn’t anticipate any future reductions, but if they are needed, he will reduce purchases of materials like books and DVDs.

“I really don’t want to go through this again next year,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #62 (Wednesday, August 11, 2010).

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