Hard times spur libraries to shelve services

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2011; B01

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.

The library system helps with reading, research, homework and technology and provides a base for students, community groups, job seekers, Wi-Fi surfers and anyone else who needs a place to learn. "We're a hub," she said.

But it's not possible to be a $40 million library system with a budget of $29 million.

And it's about to get worse. Parker has been working up proposals for another possible 15 percent cut next year. Most departments have been working on similar plans as county officials seek to close a $300 million budget shortfall.

"Are we looking forward to when we can become a $40 million library system again? You betcha," Hamilton said.

A little help from Friends

Until then, they're making choices on what to save and what to slash. They've also appealed for donations and asked _blankMontgomery's Friends of the Library organization to help fund basic library materials the county would usually cover.

"They're coming in with $5,000 for this and $2,000 for that," said Barbara Webb, who oversees purchases as chief of collection. The donations are going to buy early readers for young children and large-type books for seniors, among other items.

Webb said some branch chapters of the volunteer group have pitched in for branches that don't have an affiliated Friends group.

County-funded acquisitions are lagging far behind previous years, Webb said. Back in the 2008 fiscal year, the libraries purchased about 310,000 items with county money, Webb said. About halfway through the current fiscal year, the county has paid for 30,706 items, she said.

Taking it slowly

Montgomery is one of the nation's wealthiest counties, but budget problems in recent years, including a deep round of cuts in the middle of the most recent fiscal year after orders were made, have made financial planning tricky.

"We had some bills, especially database bills, that were way overdue," Webb said. "We are pretty much caught up now."

The county "basically had to cancel orders, then we did not get our allocation" right away in the current fiscal year, Webb said. "We basically did not have any new books between March and September," she said.

But Webb's depleted back-office team that selects books and gets them ready for circulation is back in business, making modest purchases to begin filling out half-empty "New Books" shelves and cut wait times.

More copies of Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" are coming. Same for James Patterson's "Cross Fire" and Anita Shreve's "Rescue."

The team is also working to reduce the congestion in the line for Hillenbrand's book, "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption," about Olympic runner Louis Zamperini. In addition to the 13 copies that can be reserved online for pickup, there are 20 first-come-first-served copies circulating. Webb's team is ordering more.

A basic service

The expectations for the libraries in the diverse and highly educated county are high and the appeals direct.

In Potomac, one request was left in elementary handwriting. "Please expand your children's science and history sections," it read.

"We would like to read books/newspapers in Gujarati and Hindi languages. Thank you," read another in Germantown.

Still, purchases remain sharply limited. Requests for help are something else. Library officials say they aim to assist everyone who shows up.

"Folks come in. They just got a new iPhone. They expect us to help them," Hamilton said. They also get a lot of questions about MP3 downloads. So library officials gathered their teen advisory group to offer free tech help.

"One person came in and, I tell you, it wasn't even out of the box. These kids just went into it," Hamilton said.

Sometimes it's enough to just keep heat on and the water running.

Hamilton arrived at work at the Rockville Memorial Library one recent morning alongside a homeless man coming in to wash up and settle in after emerging from a nearby shelter.

"We're a public building," she said. "As long as they follow our behavior guidelines, they're welcome to stay."

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