Libraries deal with budget reductions

Published 9:15 am Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Like other libraries across the country, the Austin Public Library has seen a spike in usage amid the economic downturn.

But with a recession comes tight budgets, and libraries everywhere are feeling the pressure.

At the Austin Public Library, circulation has been up versus 2008 in six of the year’s first seven months. June and July alone both jumped by more than 10 percent compared to the same months last year.

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When all is said and done, library director Ann Hokanson said she thinks the library can set a circulation record this year — the current high is 357,139 items checked out in 2006.

And while Hokanson certainly is excited about the numbers, the increased popularity likely won’t coincide with an improved budget picture for the library.

A librarian position open as the result of a retirement is not expected to be filled until 2011, and the city’s preliminary budget for the library in 2010 is slightly smaller than the original 2009 budget.

“We’re a full staff person short,” Hokanson said. “It’s been a very stressful summer.”

The scene in Austin is playing out all over the country. According to the American Library Association’s annual State of America’s Libraries report, released in April, library popularity is peaking but support is not.

The report indicates that more than 68 percent of Americans have a library card — the highest percentage since the ALA began tracking the number in 1990.

Library usage was also up as Americans visited their libraries nearly 1.4 billion times and checked out more than 2 billion items in the past year, an increase of more than 10 percent in both checked out items and library visits, compared to data from the last economic downturn in 2001.

The report states that both trends are indicative of people looking for cost effective resources — like job-related help — during a downturn.

However, 41 percent of states report declining state funding for U.S. public libraries in 2009, and many libraries are dealing with reduced hours and staff.

That could be the case in Albert Lea — the public library there is looking at reducing hours and staff to deal with a city cut.

Library Director Peggy Havener said the library has proposed cutting open hours from 55 to 44 during the week, which could mean two less days of operation.

In addition, the Albert Lea Public Library is planning on cutting three part-time employees, while reducing the hours for two more part-time staffers.

While the cuts still need city council approval, Havener said they are likely to go forward and speak toward the dire situation facing the library.

“It’s the only way we really had to go,” she said. “It’s not something we want to do.”

Havener said while circulation numbers are very similar to Austin’s, the Albert Lea library operates on roughly $300,000 less.

“Obviously, our budget is very lean,” she said.

However, Havener has also noticed an jump in popularity — she noted that computer usage is up as many people are looking for new jobs or filling out unemployment forms.

“It’s huge,” the director said of the surge of people using the library. “And the worst part is it’s when (the city) wants us to take a hit.”

Hokanson said that people using the library to find work or register for unemployment is just one of several reasons the Austin library has seen a popularity spike.

“I think it was just a perfect storm,” she said of the past year.

Other factors contributing to the “perfect storm” were the popularity of the library’s summer reading program, as well as an increase in kids of reading age, Hokanson said.

But as the library continues to see more and more use, Hokanson knows she’ll have to help the customers with a strained set of resources — at least for now.

“The economy is the problem of everyone,” she said. “We also have to adapt.”