Public Libraries Bounce Back - With Help From Their Friends

In East Hampton, Conn., this Friday evening, book-lovers will gather at the middle school for an auction and bake sale with a singular purpose: to raise $7,000 for a computerized catalog for the local library's children's section. They hope to replace funds trimmed in municipal belt-tightening.

On Saturday, book-lovers in Philadelphia will have greater reason to celebrate. For the first time in the 104-year history of the Free Library of Philadelphia, all 53 branches will be open six days a week. A $267,000 boost in the municipal library budget made the longer hours possible.

Call this ''A Tale of Two Cities' Libraries,'' and consider it a microcosm of the new state of public libraries in the United States. After five years of austerity, in which budget cuts forced reductions in hours, staff, and book funds - and closed some doors permanently - library funding is on the rise in many communities.

Little by little, lights have been turned back on, hours extended, and personnel added.

''A lot of people still have the image of the public library of the early 1990s, when things were very desperate,'' says George Needham, executive director of the Public Library Association.

''The good news is, the bad news is wrong,'' Mr. Needham says. ''Libraries aren't dead. They're coming back stronger.''

Among public libraries responding to Library Journal's 1995 budget survey, 85 percent report increases in their total budget, with growth averaging 7 percent a year.

As further evidence of progress, Needham points to the opening of three new urban libraries this year. Denver's $69 million library opened in March. On May 20, Phoenix opened the doors of its $43 million central library and San Antonio unveiled its $38 million facility. A $90 million library is now under construction in Cleveland, with completion slated for the end of 1996.

Progress still needed

Yet not all the news is encouraging. ''We're gaining in some places, but in others the situation is still critical,'' says Betty Turock, president of the American Library Association. ''We're not back to where we were when all the cutbacks began.'' Southern California, she notes, ''is still in dire straits'' because of budget cuts in many cities and counties.

Monica Kangley, the children's librarian in Connecticut, explains the need for this week's auction by saying, ''It's been hard times. Our budget is very limited.'' Although she describes her community of 11,000 as ''a wonderful town for support,'' she adds, ''I'm getting butterflies right now. I've got some very nice items to sell, but what if you throw a party and nobody comes?''

Even in cities where increases in funding have restored five- or six-day service, money for books and staff often remains tight. The cost of adding technology strains budgets even further.

In addition, changing demographics and an influx of recent immigrants are putting new demands on libraries in some parts of the country. As Dr. Turock explains, this includes developing collections in languages other than English and adding literacy services in other languages.

Most funding for the nation's nearly 15,000 public libraries is local, coming largely from property taxes. Federal funds provide 53 cents per US resident per year - an amount the American Library Association hopes will be increased to $1 over the next five years.

''Public libraries spend less than 1 percent of all tax dollars collected, and statistics show they're used by more than 50 percent of people,'' Turock says.

Yet this year libraries could lose some federal funds, which come through the Library Services and Technology Act.

The House recently appropriated $110 million - about 10 percent less than last year, according to Turock. It would also distribute funds in block grants. Discussion on a Senate bill began with a figure of $250 million and have not centered around block grants.

''Even if it goes as a block grant, we want dollars earmarked for public libraries through the Library Services and Technology Act,'' Turock says.

Whatever the final amount from Washington, many librarians see belt-tightening as an ongoing economic reality. Yet some draw inspiration from the comeback many libraries have made since the darkest days of the early 1990s. They credit citizen advocacy, support from Friends of Libraries groups, and librarians' own initiatives for restoring funds.

Philadelphia represents one such success story. In 1991, serious financial difficulties affected all city agencies, including libraries, which were forced to cut staffs. A proposed budget would have required drastic cutbacks in hours and services.

''The Friends of the Free Library rallied and did their advocacy job superbly,'' recalls Stephen Bell, deputy director for marketing. ''We had two-thirds of that proposed budget cut reversed.''

Signs of vitality

Today, in addition to citywide Saturday service, the library shows other signs of vitality. Its capital budget for facilities improvements tripled from $1.7 million last year to $5.2 million this year. And a fund-raising campaign launched in April has raised $16 million in private funds toward a goal of $50 million.

''The difference between 1991 and 1995 is astounding,'' says Mr. Bell.

Philadelphians agree. A local survey released last week ranks libraries at the top of the city's services, with 71 percent of respondents rating the libraries excellent or good.

The Brooklyn Public Library illustrates another turnaround. In 1992, its 58 branches were open only two days a week because of budget cuts.

''There was no place for kids to go after school, no place for parents to take their children, and very little Saturday service,'' says Judith Foust, deputy director. Those cutbacks led to a public outcry. ''It really was a grass-roots effort,'' Ms. Foust says.

As a result, funding doubled over the next three years. This year the library returned to six-day service in branches and seven-day service at the central library.

In addition, community efforts led to a $1.5 million restoration of the long-closed Saratoga branch, which had been built by Andrew Carnegie.

''We began to pound away at the city in terms of, 'We want funds, we want service restored to our community through reopening this library,''' says Charles Sterling, executive director of OBUSTY, the Ocean Hill Bushwick Bedford Stuyvesant economic development agency.

''It's been a rallying point for us - a symbol of private groups and the city coming together to support an institution that has a definite impact on commercial revitalization in the area,'' he says. ''How can you have commercial revitalization and in the middle of it have a library, which is a major institution, that is closed?''

Other victories have been legal. In Buffalo, N.Y., the Buffalo and Erie County Library faced a double blow when the county government cut budgets and took control of library funds. In 1990, the library's Board of Trustees sued the county government to regain management of library money.

''There were people who felt we could never win,'' says former director Don Cloudsley, who retired last Friday after 46 years. ''They were a little shy about biting the hand that feeds us.'' The library won the suit on appeals in 1992.

''That was a happy day,'' says Mr. Cloudsley. ''It did begin a turnaround.'' Library officials also succeeded in getting the state legislature to pass a Library Protection Act. Once library funds are appropriated in January, they cannot be cut.

Not all library challenges are economic. As the ranks of homeless people have increased in the past decade, libraries in some communities have become a refuge, sometimes leading to complaints from regular patrons.

''Most libraries are trying to deal with the homeless issue in a collaborative effort with other city and social service agencies,'' Needham says. ''It's not just the library's problem.''

The future of libraries

As electronic information multiplies, librarians face a question: Whither the library of the future?

''We hear all the time that we don't have to invest in public libraries anymore,'' says Turock. ''People say, 'We'll log on from home and get all the information we need.' ''

But that approach is misguided, she says. Although she emphasizes that libraries ''need to be the access ramp to the information highway,'' she adds. ''The library is more than a place you go for books. It's a civic forum. As much as we talk about electronic media, people are still social creatures. We see the public library as a center not just for information but for reading, for literacy programs, for independent learning.''

Keith Michael Fiels, director of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, calls himself ''optimistic,'' saying, ''We don't see any indication that the use of print materials is decreasing. In fact, it continues to steadily rise.''

A year ago, Mr. Fiels says, ''there was a euphoria among hackers that things like the Internet would replace the need for libraries.''

''In the past year there's been a more realistic assessment,'' he says. ''The Internet works wonderfully for some people, a very small number. But for the majority of individuals, it's just an infinitely more complex information environment where finding the information you need is more difficult, not less difficult.''

Kangley, the Connecticut children's librarian, offers another reason for maintaining libraries. ''There's a baby boom out there,'' she says. ''The support for libraries can't be cut. It must be increased.''

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