Concerned citizens in Montgomery County read the handwriting on the wall and sprung to action this month to save their libraries from the budget chopping block.
Joseph Reiff, chairman of the Olney Library Advisory Committee and media specialist at Sherwood High School’s library, said urged all eight Montgomery County Council members to oppose initial proposals to cut libraries’ hours to save money in the fiscal 2010 budget.
“At a time when more and more community members are turning to the public libraries for services, a reduction in hours is the last thing our community needs,” he wrote, expressing the sentiments of like-minded county residents.
The Library Advisory Committees, an auxiliary of the Montgomery County Library Board of Trustees, advise local branch managers about what the community needs. They also advocate to their county council members and state officials.
The Montgomery County Council is scheduled to meet this week to pass a tentative budget, which is expected to include full funding for maintaining current library hours. The council is set to officially adopt thefiscal 2010 budget on Thursday.
Parker Hamilton, director of the Montgomery County Public Library system, is optimistic that libraries across the county will not have to make any changes to their hours.
“Library services are free. The library serves a diverse population who make the most of all our services,” Mrs. Hamilton said. “All branches [22 plus a mobile van] have free wireless access in addition to 472 public-access computers. We have more than 3 million titles in our print materials collection. Our programming includes early literacy for young children, outreach to teens and book discussion and current issues events for adults. We offer job search resources and databases.”
As with the economic downturns of 1987 and 2001, dependency on libraries goes up as they are transformed into ad-hoc career counseling centers, putting additional demands and strains on libraries and their staffs, said Joseph Eagan, Olney Library branch manager.
Javier Fuentes, 22, estimates that he had been coming to the Wheaton Regional Library three to four times a week for the past three years to use the computer lab. He uses the free software and other available learning tools to improve his ability to read and write formal English.
He plans to enroll at Montgomery College, and said, “I wouldn’t have even been able to think about that three years ago.” He credits the library’s evening hours with helping him to get this far in his educational goals.
The recession is expected to get tougher, not only for individuals and the businesses they work for or own, but also for local municipal governments. Local governments have been hard hit by the current economic downturn, making balancing their budget, as required by law, more difficult for local lawmakers. In lean times, services can become leaner.
A recent reduction in operating hours for the D.C. Public Library became effective March 2, and the Fairfax County Public Library system will reduce its operating hours as of July 1.
Neil Greenberger, legislative information officer for the Montgomery County Council, said the county was facing a $600 million budget gap for fiscal 2010. County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett and members of the county council have said publicly that the deficit would result in certain county services being cut.
However, county officials also said that “essential” services would not be cut under any circumstances, leaving the reduction in library hours to the council’s Health and Human Services committee.
Dr. Dana Beyer, senior adviser to council member Duchy Trachtenberg, said the HHS committee considered reductions not only to library hours, but also to materials acquisitions, but in the end rejected them. However, she speculated that if the county faces a further shortfall, a number of items could be back on the table, including reductions in new materials acquisitions.
“We have always been proud of our libraries, which are a vital community resource. We are fully aware, during these difficult times, of the need to maintain hours to serve the growing needs of our county residents,” Dr. Beyer said.
At the Wheaton Regional Library during the last half-hour of operation last Monday, the library was still bustling with activity.
Among those browsing on the ground floor were Jessica Sevigny and Bobby Moses, employees of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, who were searching leaflets and the bulletin board for opportunities to get involved in their community.
A ninth-grade student at Northwood High School, who asked not to be identified, asked: “What if someone has to do their homework and they don’t have a computer at home and the library is closed at 5 or 6 p.m.? That’s going to hurt their grades and their family. What if they want to get a book and the library is closed?”
A Montgomery County Literacy Council tutor, who also asked to remain anonymous, said she has been working with a student at Wheaton from 7 to 9 p.m. for the past four years. If libraries were closed early, she said she would have a difficult time finding someplace that is as accessible and welcoming as the library.
John Muller is a longtime volunteer with the D.C. Public Library’s Adult Literacy Resource Center. He lives in Montgomery County.