Hard times spur libraries to shelve services

Barbara Webb, who oversees book collection purchases for the county, inspects new, catalogued arrivals at the library warehouse.
Barbara Webb, who oversees book collection purchases for the county, inspects new, catalogued arrivals at the library warehouse. (Michael S. Williamson)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2011

Readers who want to reserve a copy of Laura Hillenbrand's new World War II biography for pickup at _blanka Montgomery County library better have a backup in mind.

There are 280 people in line for the 13 reserve copies of the "Seabiscuit" author's latest book, and the waiting time at the back of the queue is more than a year.

As Montgomery's politicians and Excel wizards enter the new year focused on unforgiving budget math, the county's readers are learning more about what ongoing library cuts mean for their local branches and daily routines.

In Bethesda, shrinking spending means not renewing a bipartisan and demographically diverse list of periodicals next year. The Nation and Weekly Standard are out. Car and Driver? Town and Country? Gone. Also among the titles to be discontinued: Runner's World and Bicycling, Entrepreneur and Fast Company, Nature and the Journal of the American Medical Association.

In Damascus, it has meant scaling way back on efforts to help babies, toddlers and preschoolers - and their parents and caregivers - get ready for early reading. The branch organized 124 early reading programs during the last fiscal year, and attendance topped 4,000. But in the first half of this fiscal year, about 800 participants squeezed into just 13 such programs.

The cuts also have meant earlier closing times. Some patrons have reacted to the changes with the height of understanding. Others have been steamed and sarcastic.

"I usually come to the library about 8 p.m. on Thursday night. I guess I'll never be able to use the library again after you go to the absolutely useless schedule," commented Mark Gundy of Germantown on a feedback form for library management. "Why don't you open an hour later, or just close all the libraries and save all our taxes?"

The frustration also reflects the attachment people have for their neighborhood branches and the people in them. Gundy's suggestions also expressed concern for disruptions facing library staff. "I have good friends here and am sorry to see a good group broken up. Who's in charge here?" Gundy wrote.

'Doing less with less'

Parker Hamilton is in charge here. The South Carolina native started as a temporary librarian at Long Branch in 1981 and worked her way up as a branch manager, a senior county administrator and now head of the libraries.

"Do I wish we had adequate funds to deliver library services? Yes. But do I know this is a very real economic crisis the county is going through? Yes," Parker said. "We used to say, 'We're doing more with less.' Now the folks are saying, 'We're doing less with less.'"

Spending on libraries has dropped by more than a quarter since 2008 - from $40 million to $29 million - and the materials budget has been lopped in half, to $3 million.

Parker said she is pained by the backtracking those numbers represent.

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