Isle libraries in tough spot


POSTED: Friday, August 28, 2009

As the recession has caused people to flock to public libraries, the state Board of Education is on the verge of closing all 51 libraries for two days a month to accommodate a budget shortfall. The proposal is preferable to a proposal to shut the doors entirely on five libraries but still could have harmful consequences.

Libraries are experiencing double-digit increases in patronage across the country, ranging from 10 percent to 30 percent. Patrons are affirming the adage that “;libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.”;

Under normal circumstances, libraries are vital in providing a funnel for learning by children and adults. During difficult economic conditions, roles expand to being a vehicle for the unemployed to find job listings or for more homeless to find air-conditioned shelter.

A survey of libraries by The New York Times in the spring found that people were forsaking Barnes & Noble and subscriptions to Netflix for books, DVDs and CDs available without charge. Others use free Internet services for job searches or information about prospective employers. The president of the New York Public Library said the 40 million visits to New York libraries over the past year was the greatest ever in a 12-month period.

The increased use and cutbacks in staffing has turned traditionally tranquil settings into emotional hotbeds nationwide, where a library employee may be thrust into the role of a first responder to an emotionally distraught patron. In some cases, the stress on librarians providing needed assistance under those circumstances instead of collecting fines or returning books to shelves has required counseling by therapists.

State Librarian Richard Burns told the board that the closing of the libraries on the first and third Wednesdays of each month, with employees taking the days off with no pay, is needed to meet a $3.58 million budget shortfall through June of next year. The proposal before the board would allow as many as four days of closure a month if the budget problem grows. Departing employees would not be replaced.

Libraries such as Lahaina on Maui and Kealakekua on the Big Island might need to be closed temporarily because of inadequate staffing until the economy improves, Burns said. The Holualoa branch on the Big Island already has been shuttered.

Burns had targeted for permanent closure five branches, including Holualoa, Kealakekua, Hana on Maui and public and school libraries at Pahala on the Big Island and Ewa Beach. The question remains how many of the proposed temporary closures would become permanent ones.