An unfortunate correlation occurs at public libraries when the economy turns sour: Budgets and services are cut just as the public”s need for access to those resources peaks.
Libraries around the state are reeling from 15-percent cuts in state funding since 2008 and anticipating upwards of 20 percent more being slashed in 2011 and beyond.
As unemployment in Lowndes County hit 13 percent in July, more people need access to the computers and Internet services at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library. The situation is worse in Clay County, where unemployment is above 20 percent.
Cities and counties, which also fund public libraries, are doing the best they can just to keep their contributions from falling at a time when libraries are vital.
Alice Shands, director of the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library, reports approximately 1,000 visitors to the library each day.
“More and more people are using the library as an information resource. Looking for jobs, how to do resumes, looking for information on life decisions like health care things. As they have trimmed (budgets) at home, a lot of people let their Internet access go,” said Shands.
The Columbus library still provides Internet access, but budget cuts have forced it to trim jobs. Nobody got laid off, but when a full-time technology specialist and a part-time worker in the archives room left, those positions had to remain vacant. Shands anticipates two more retirements this fall she won”t be able to fill. One of those two, Susan Nawrocki in the reference department, has a master”s degree in library science.
Much of the money received from the state is intended to allow libraries to hire professionals with library-based degrees, which Shands says “helps keep us competitive.” Without those specialists on staff, service is bound to suffer.
Local boards have until Sept. 15 to finalize their fiscal year 2011 budgets, but the city of Columbus has already been forced to reduce library funds it agreed to match with Lowndes County. In 2010, Lowndes County budgeted $326,000 for the library while Columbus put up around $250,000. The city has budgeted $225,000 for 2011.
“I think the library is one of the most important things we fund,” said District 1 Supervisor and Board President Harry Sanders. “People think of the library as just a place to check out kids” books, but our library keeps some of the archives the county has to store. It keeps all of our microfilm. It”s almost indispensable.”
In West Point, the Bryan Public Library cut four of five full-time employees through attrition, froze travel and other expenditures and still had to close on Saturdays for a period. Only through private fundraisers organized by local residents was it able to resume Saturday services. Civic groups raised almost $15,000 for the library.
If cuts are as severe as anticipated next year, librarian Mary Helen Waggoner says the library may need the community to do it all over again.
Clay County District 3 Supervisor R.B. Davis anticipates the county will offer its usual $70,000, or seven-tenths of a mill, to the Bryan Library.
“It”s vital because we”ve got people who need to get online that don”t have computers at home. They go to the library to try to find jobs,” he said.
The Bryan Library also hosted eight summer reading programs this summer, hosting 75-100 kids at each.
The Starkville-Oktibbeha County Public Library System exists on more than $430,000 in total funds, but those are shared between three locations: Starkville, Sturgis and Maben.
Library Director Ginny Holtzcamp has six full-time employees and seven part-time employees between the three branches, but says that”s hardly enough to offer adequate service to patrons.
“We can”t devote time to a single person. Sometimes time is needed to look something up for someone. We get them started then run somewhere else to get someone else started. If there are computer problems it”s hard to straighten that out then get back to the desk. It causes long lines and a lot more wait time. Patrons have to be a lot more patient,” she said.
In addition to keeping the libraries in order, Holtzcamp and her crew do their own grant writing in hopes of receiving some relief funds. Unfortunately, she says the money just isn”t out there.
Our neighbors to the north are in a similar situation. The Lee County Library in Tupelo took a $17,000 cut from state funds in 2010 and stands to lose another $28,000 in 2011. Library Director Jan Willis is campaigning for an additional $9,500 from Tupelo city officials and another $12,500 from Lee County.
Jason Browne was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.
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