DENVER — A century after the nation’s library building boom, public libraries are under siege: plunging tax revenues are forcing closures and staff cutbacks, while e-readers and the Internet can make a library seem quaint as a place to find a book or do research.
Yet amid severe cutbacks, libraries are finding novel ways to generate money and are rebranding themselves as crucial employment resources for people without computers and as community gathering places that cannot be easily replaced.
“If there’s any silver lining in the downturn for libraries, it’s that it has really forced us to look at new ways of doing business,” said Audra Caplan, president of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association. “We can’t depend solely on tax dollars anymore.”
Libraries in Maine have been feeling the sting of the budgetary blade for years now.
“This is the third straight year we’ve had cuts, and we lost 6.35 percent of our budget this year,” said Bangor Public Library director Barbara McDade. “We lost 2.6 people this year after two last year, and we’re opening an hour later now [10 a.m.], as of Monday and closing at 7 p.m. [8 p.m. during winter hours].’
The Old Town Public Library is losing two staff members to retirement, but will only be able to replace one.
“We’re losing 40 hours, but I’ll only be able to hire back someone at 20 hours,” said Cynthia Jennings, Old Town Public Library director. “Our budget may have to be cut about 10 percent, so we’re rethinking our programming, our staffing, hours of operation. … We’ve had to restructure what we’ve done here and do more cross-training with our staff members.”
Library directors are responding to the dwindling support from local governments by charging for premium services, selling passport photos and joining with DVD retailers to offer commercial movie-rental boxes in exchange for a cut of the sales.
“Simple reference questions can be found easily on the Internet now, so now our reference questions involve deeper research,” said McDade. “Genealogy is booming business for us along with book research, grant research and finding jobs.”
McDade is also finding other ways to create revenue sources for Bangor’s public library.
“We had 491 meetings here in 2010, along with 4,282 adults and 10,000 children attending programs here,” McDade said. “We now have at least one program every day of the week for children.
“All the programs we do and our three meeting rooms have almost made us more of a community center than a library.”
In the most extreme examples, some communities have decided to privatize library operations.
On Thursday, the American Library Association meets in New Orleans to begin its annual conference and will address the funding crisis and ways to maintain services.
There’s no question libraries face an uncertain future. A 2010 survey by Library Journal showed that 72 percent of surveyed libraries said they faced budget cuts in the previous year, while 43 percent said they had made cuts to staffing. Nearly one in five respondents expressed pessimism about the future of libraries.
“I would disagree that we need to worry about that,” said McDade. “Our circulation [books checked out] went up 4.27 percent last year and our through-the-door traffic went up as 3.3 percent.
“People are still finding us and using us. The way they’re using us is changing, however.”
Even with the search for new funding sources, the shorter hours, slimmer staffs and declining offerings of books and DVDs have devoted library patrons worried about the future.
“Libraries are everything — opportunities to come read, better yourself, find out what’s going on. But these days, it seems no one really cares about all that,” said Charles Holt of Denver, a 50-year-old out-of-work cook who walks daily to a library to pass the time and search for a new job.
These days, Holt is walking farther because his closest library branch is now open just four days a week. Budget cuts in Denver threaten to shut his branch and up to half the city’s library branches permanently.
Holt said even in his relatively low-skill field of commercial cooking, he needs the Internet to find work.
“Not everybody has a computer,” said Holt, who said even some unemployment benefits require online applications.
That’s why Bangor’s library is investing heavily in computer technology.
“We are part of a statewide grant to get computers for a computer lab and teach basic computer skills as well as how to find jobs and find legal and health information,” McDade said. “We should be getting them at the end of the month and we hope to have the lab operational by August.”
Libraries as most Americans know them today are the product of Industrial Age philanthropy. Over a three-decade period that ended in 1919, steel baron Andrew Carnegie donated more than $40 million to build nearly 1,700 libraries in communities across the country, according to the National Park Service.
Almost all public libraries rely on city and county governments to pay for staff, material and maintenance. Some communities have decided it’s an expense they no longer can afford.
Fifteen systems have been turned over completely to a private library company, a practice that is opposed by the American Library Association.
In California, the state Legislature is considering a bill to restrict the privatization of public libraries, in part by forcing contractors to show that the change would save money.
The bill was introduced by a Democratic lawmaker from Santa Barbara after he received complaints about declining service and higher fees at libraries in his district that were being operated by a for-profit company.
The company, Library Systems and Services LLC of Germantown, Md., insists it offers communities a good deal by streamlining staffing and offering greater purchasing power for books and other material. Spokeswoman Mia Pezzanite said the company opposes the California legislation.
“We believe it takes away from a city’s ability to make choices for their communities,” she said, adding that governments retain ownership of the buildings and material.
The bill won narrow approval earlier this month in the state Assembly and is awaiting debate in the Senate.
Outsourcing certain library functions is a more common approach. Some libraries invite for-profit test preparation companies to give basic courses or ask community college professors to lecture on their areas of expertise. Some library systems also are adding revenue by giving patrons the option to pay for new releases or flexible return dates.
A library in Shrewsbury, Mass., even sells sponsorships to keep the library open on Sundays. Businesses that donate $500 get a sign in the lobby highlighting their sponsorship.
A library system in Hayward, Calif., has started a Netflix-like borrowing model in which customers who don’t like traditional due dates can keep books or DVDs as long as they like (for $2.99 to $8.99 a month) and simply pick up another when they return the item.
In Oakland, Calif., where city officials are considering budget cuts that could close 14 of 18 branches, librarians have started “story time flash mobs,” during which librarians with bullhorns read aloud in public areas to whip up opposition to the cuts.
“I don’t understand how someone could not be galvanized by someone saying they’re going to close libraries,” Oakland librarian Amy Martin said.
In libraries such as Denver and Old Town, staffers are using Twitter to promote community events and are talking up libraries’ value as a job-placement center.
“We’re trying to use social networking software a lot too with Facebook and Twitter,” said Jennings. “Rather than compete against or resist technology, we’re embracing it. I feel we’ll waste a lot of time if we don’t embrace technological advances. A friend of mine said this is a scenic turnout on the information superhighway. We help to facilitate or share the use of information and technology with local users.”
Denver is considering cutting about $2.5 million from the library system’s budget next year, forcing about half the branches to close.
“People think the library is dead because of the Internet, but the exact opposite is true. This is where people come to find jobs, to learn how to use computers, to get material for their e-readers,” said Diane Lapierre, director of community relations for Denver Public Libraries.
Librarians say that is especially true in a recession because libraries in many towns offer the only free computer and Internet access. In Cincinnati, marketing and programming director Amy Banister said her 40-branch system has been overwhelmed by job-seekers even as budget cuts have reduced hours 10 percent.
The websites for hundreds of public library systems now include online calculators that allow patrons to enter the number of books, DVDs and other materials they use as a way to see how much money the library saves them.
Librarians concede that it’s not always easy to demonstrate their value. In Aurora, a Denver suburb that closed nearly half its branches last year, library director Patti Bateman said she doesn’t blame local officials who cut her budget. Libraries simply need to show they’re essential, she said.
“There are so many difficult choices to make,” Bateman said. “You can’t say, ‘Gee, let’s cut police.’ You need fire protection. You need the roads. You need clean water. But you need libraries, too.”
BDN writer Andrew Neff contributed to this report.