Libraries see more use, less funding
CAPITAL REGION Since June, use of the Troy Public Library has increased 25 percent. More people are checking out items and using computers, and the audiences at some library programs have doubled.
But the high demand didn’t prevent the library from closing branches in Lansingburgh and Sycaway in February.
“That had been coming for quite some time,” said Paul Hicok, director of the Troy Public Library. Last year city voters approved creating an independent library district but voted down the proposed budget. As a result, the library’s funding continued to be provided by the city, at an amount — $450,000 — that hadn’t increased in about six years.
Libraries throughout the Capital Region are reporting heavy traffic, the result of a slumping economy that has more residents turning to the free services, materials and programming available. People are visiting libraries to use the free computers and bringing their laptops to libraries that offer free wireless Internet access. Many are looking for jobs and filling out applications.
“Usage historically increases during tough economic times,” said Michael Borges, executive director of the New York Library Association. “There was a spike in usage during the recession of 1991-92, but it’s even greater now because more job applications are done over the Internet.”
Last year was the busiest year in the history of the Schenectady County Public Library, according to Director Andy Kulmatiski. But he noted that traffic has been on the rise for a while, having climbed 40 percent over the past six years.
“We’ve been consistently getting busier,” he said. “The economy is part of it. Where we’re seeing the economic impact is in computer usage.”
Patrons also borrowed 3 percent more material in 2008 compared to 2007.
Funding, however, has not increased. The Schenectady County Public Library’s 2009 budget is $5.36 million — about $100,000 less than its 2007 budget.
According to the American Library Association’s annual State of America’s Libraries report, libraries nationwide have experienced dramatic increases in users as the economy has worsened.The report was released earlier this month.
Currently, more than 68 percent of Americans have a library card — the greatest number since the ALA began to measure usage in 1990.
In the past year, Americans visited their libraries nearly 1.4 billion times and checked out 2 billion items, an increase of more than 10 percent in both categories compared to data from the last economic downturn in 2001.
The problem, the ALA report says, is that library funding has not kept pace. Forty-one percent of states report declining state funding for fiscal year 2009.
“This has been a problem for a while, but it’s really been exacerbated by the economic downturn,” said Camila Alire, president-elect of the American Library Association. “Branches are closing across the country. If they’re not closing, they’re cutting hours.”
state cuts back
The New York state budget for 2009-10 allocates $91 million for libraries, down from $99 million in 2008-09 and $102 million in 2007-08. Gov. David Paterson had originally proposed cutting $18 million from the library allocation for 2009-10, but $10 million was restored.
“We’re concerned that in a year when the media and the publicity and all of the facts and figures point to how libraries are doing more, library funding still got cut,” Borges said. “We’re very disappointed and sort of in shock that state policymakers did not recognize the extraordinary efforts libraries are making to help people get through tough times.”
The Saratoga Springs Public Library’s proposed $4.88 million budget contains no spending increase and the same tax levy as the year before. Library Director Isaac Pulver said the library decreased personnel costs by 2 percent by leaving open jobs unfilled or shifting employees to different positions, a move that will enable the library to acquire more materials for circulation.
A budget with no growth is unusual, Pulver said. “They almost always increase, usually between 2 to 5 percent.”
But with the country in recession and residents concerned about expenses, the library wanted to keep the budget flat, even as expenses continue to rise. Some of these increases have been unexpected. For instance, the water bill has increased because more people are using the facility. The chairs in the computer center are wearing out faster because more people are sitting in them.
Pulver said that in the past year library traffic has increased 10 percent, circulation has increased 6 percent and computer use has increased 56 percent. Much of this growth is related to the economy, but “we almost always see an increase from year to year,” he said.
Last year, the Troy Public Library Foundation tapped into its investments and provided the library with $113,000. But those investments are “about half what they were,” according to Hicok, “and we had to cut back somewhere. . . . In Troy, we’ve always had to do a lot with a little,” he said. “This is sort of like the perfect storm. Our investments are shrinking at a time when no other source of income is increasing.”
One Capital Region library is actually expanding.
Two years ago, residents of Albany approved the renovation of three branches and two new branches — an Arbor Hill/West Hill branch and a New Scotland Avenue branch. Two of these branches are scheduled to open by the end of the year.
“We’ve been working hard to keep our projects on time and on budget,” said Timothy Burke, interim library director. “It’s a challenge, in this economy, to do this, but we know we’re providing an essential community service.”
Burke said that library traffic has increased steadily since 2002, when Albany voters approved creating a separate library system that has its own budget and operates independently of the city. But in the last year, library use has jumped, although the official numbers don’t always reflect that trend because some branches have been closed for renovations.
At the main branch on Washington Avenue, the door count for December 2008 was 47,349, compared to 38,877 in 2007, a 21 percent jump.
This year, the Albany Public Library is asking voters to approve a $6.7 million budget that contains a 3.56 percent tax increase. Burke said it is important that the budget passes because it enables the APL to fund the new and existing branches as well as services at the main branch.
“One of the things that made the branch improvement plan so exciting is that people gave it overwhelming support,” he said.