Libraries, hit by budget cuts, find innovative ways to expand services

On the second floor of the Framingham Public Library, things look as they should. Books and magazines are arranged neatly on rows and rows of shelves, and a special display offers books for ''relaxed summer reading.''

Behind the scenes, things look different. The bookmobile has been parked downstairs for three years. The library has closed one branch, and laid off almost half of its total staff. Director Chuck Flaherty says the library is just trying to maintain basic services.

The Framingham library system, like most libraries in the Boston area, has been running lean since the tax-cutting measure Proposition 21/2 was passed in 1980.

However, in some cases, the financial strictures that came with Proposition 21/2 are forcing libraries to be more efficient and innovative than before.

For instance, the Framingham library is ''really hurting in children's programs,'' says Mr. Flaherty. With only one children's librarian, programs are limited, yet parents want ''more and more.''

The children's librarian applied for and received a federal grant to set up an ''early literature center'' to help develop pre-reading skills, he says. This is one example of how libraries are looking to less traditional ways of funding their programs and activities.

When Proposition 21/2 passed, limiting property taxes and cutting town revenue, many towns sharply reduced their library budgets. No library was actually forced to close, says Mary Burgarella, head of library development for the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. But to compensate for sharply reduced budgets, she adds, many libraries closed branches, laid off large portions of their staffs, cut back on special programs, reduced their hours, and bought fewer books. Although the state increased its aid to help libraries after the passage of Proposition 21/2, they ''are not as well off as before,'' she says.

According to some local library directors, the libraries have adjusted to limited funding. And a few have found innovative ways to make up for the cuts in service and staff.

For instance, libraries in Framingham and 13 neighboring towns are in the process of linking their computerized circulation systems. Flaherty says the Framingham library has had a computerized circulation system since 1979. The new system, called the Minuteman Library Network, is funded with a $440,000 federal grant from the Library Services and Construction Act and will include Natick, Concord, Wayland, and Wellesley, to name a few.

Flaherty says the network will allow participating libraries to ''cooperate and share responsibilities for collection development in nonfiction. We will certainly continue to buy popular titles. But as a group, we'll be able to balance and strengthen the overall collection.''

For instance, in purchasing new books, one library may specialize in medieval history, another will have a large collection of American literature, and another may specialize in music.

With the computer link, it will be possible to know which library has a particular book, and whether or not it has been checked out. ''Within two years you'll be able to go into any library in the system, and have access to more books than ever,'' Flaherty says.

An additional six libraries have joined the Minuteman system, bringing the total to 20. Flaherty says there is also talk of linking the Minuteman system with the three other systems which are being developed in northeastern Massachusetts. The libraries on the South Shore are pursuing similar options.

Warren Watson, director of the Quincy library, says Proposition 21/2 ''affected us perhaps more than almost any of the medium-sized libraries in all of eastern Massachusetts. (It) cost us 40 percent of our man-hours, and 50 percent of our (employees).'' Four small branch libraries were closed, and hours in the three remaining branches were cut by almost two-thirds.

In 1983, ''rather than further reduce our staff, we eliminated the book budget completely,'' Mr. Watson says.

''We had a morale problem for two years,'' he says, ''but this has improved.'' Now, staff members pitch in wherever they are needed. People who had professional jobs are now checking out books, Watson says. ''But this is not a detriment,'' he says, because they have gained a better sense of how the entire system works.

The Quincy library cut programs for adults, he says, such as a series of author talks, a book discussion club, and a music appreciation group. But the library has been able to maintain some children's programs, such as story hours for preschoolers and grade school students.

We're still in ''the business of trying to make children of all ages as library-conscious as possible, and instill a love of reading,'' Watson says.

In Framingham, cuts were less severe. The book budget fell from $120,000 to $ 78,000 in 1982. Since then it has grown back to $118,000, Flaherty says, but the increase ''doesn't even come close to meeting inflation. Book prices have risen so much in the past three years, I have fewer real dollars to buy books than in 1981.''

One branch in Framingham was closed. ''Ease of access is terribly important for the young and old. Large numbers of users have been considerably inconvenienced by (the) closing. Fortunately, most have access to a car, and most have found their way to us here,'' he says.

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