The story of public libraries in recent years might be found in the Gothic literature section – the struggle for funding creates a gloomy atmosphere of melodrama and, looking at the numbers, even a bit of horror.
Cuts, bloody cuts, has been the main plot for most of the Westchester Library System, but on Friday librarians from around the county came out to protest the state's fifth budget reduction since 2008 that promises to slash 18% of the system's funds.
Squinting into the sun, the leadership from 13 district libraries stood with Oppenheimer in the courtyard of the White Plains Public Library to demand a full restoration of Albany's most recently proposed budget cut, which reduced library funding by $2.5 million from 2009-10 levels.
Since 2008, the public libraries have lost $18 million in state budget cuts.
Calling the library her "second home," Oppenheimer blasted Albany for scrimping on what is such a small part of the state's budget and for shelving the role libraries have in essential community outreach services and year-round education.
"In times of economic hardship, library use rises dramatically," said Oppenheimer. "We have already seen our libraries cut down their hours to reduce spending. Libraries are places for career search, free entertainment, and informal gatherings," she said.
If passed, Gov. Paterson's proposed budget cuts would bring state funding to libraries down to just $84.5 million.
In the Westchester Library System (WLS), half of the 38 public libraries have cut back their hours due to budget cuts just since 2008, and 50 full-time jobs have been eliminated in only the past year.
"Given the state's fiscal woes, reductions in state spending are unfortunately unavoidable – yet funding for our libraries cannot be further compromised," said Oppenheimer.
Calling the library system a "great equalizer" she noted that libraries serve the greater community in a way so few organizations do: "They are places where individuals of any means can find answers to their questions in a very calm sanctuary."
Librarians from around Oppenheimer's district spoke out at the morning's press conference, illustrating a tragic picture of what the current state is for most libraries already.
"Libraries are the first to get cut, and the last to be restored," said Diane Courtney, director of Larchmont Public Library.
"State aid to libraries represents less than of one-tenth of one percent of the state budget," she noted. "Cutting money for libraries is not going to close the state budget gap, but it will have a devastating impact on our work."
She called the decision "poor public policy" and said the very act would bring corresponding losses of federal funding, "another reason why cutting state aid for public libraries makes no sense."
Kurt Hadeler, director of the Rye Free Reading Room, said his library, which serves the Rye Neck and Port Chester communities, already is facing a 16.5-percent budget reduction from the municipality this year.
"Cuts like that are horrible, and they're drastic, but they're made even worse when the state cuts funding to the library systems, because we rely heavily on our consortial relationships with our neighboring libraries and the Westchester Library System to help us with technology and all the great things that we're able to do," said Hadeler.
In an interview, Chappaqua Library Director Pam Thornton, who was at the event, expressed concern, in particular about the delivery system for sending material between libraries. She said that it could be cut from the current six days of delivery - Monday through Saturday - to four, resulting in longer waits.
Since Friday, there hasn't been anything in the way of change regarding the budget.
"It's all stuck in Albany," said Thornton in referring to the status.
Dave Donelson, a Trustee of the WLS, slammed the proposed budget, and juxtaposed the need and demand for public libraries to ticket sales of major-league baseball.
" There were over 8 million visits to Westchester libraries in 2009," said Donelson. "That's more than a full season attendance at Yankee Stadium."
"Libraries are not just a depository of books; libraries are places where teenagers gather after school, where seniors come for help navigating the maze of our health insurance system, and where thousands of people come for help finding a job," he said.
"The Yonkers library is now closed entirely on weekend; neither Saturday or Sunday are they opened. Sundays are out in Greenburgh, and in several other of our libraries as well," he thundered.
Among the services that the WLS offers that may be cut or diminished:
- Operation or maintenance of the county's largest online network (which provides free Internet service through 600 computers, plus wireless network service at all member libraries
- Interlibrary Loan System, which allows libraries to individually purchase less books by sharing with the offering of other libraries.
- Elimination of the system's health advocacy research centers, where If so, 2,500 seniors were assisted last year to get help with medical insurance and health care problems
- Job counseling service, which helped 2,000 prepare for interviews, hunt for and find jobs suited to their abilities
Bringing up possibly the most tragic twist in the sorry tale of ever-shrinking library funds, Donelson noted that many staffers have already been cut from children's departments across the WLS.
"Do we take the next step and disappoint the 43,000 kids who took part in our summer reading program last year? " he said.
The adopted budget may or may not be passed, but we can't give you a date when there will be a vote. Keep reading Patch for your local library's denouement.