Libraries budgets strained by recession, technology demands

Patrons use public computers at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier. Photo by Viola Gad/VTDigger

Patrons use public computers at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier. Photo by Viola Gad/VTDigger

Vermont has the most libraries per capita in the country. But not all of them are up to speed. Twenty-four libraries in the state still lack wireless Internet, according to Vermont public library statistics.

The Department of Libraries sees a strong need to invest in technology to keep patrons coming. At the same time, grants and other funding have decreased in the wake of the economic downturn. With level or decreased income, funding the new technology and training for staff has become an economic burden that many libraries are struggling to carry.

“You can’t think about libraries without technology,” said Martha Reid, Vermont’s state librarian. “The kind of things they are offering are expanding and their budgets are not keeping up with these changes.”

The total municipal funding has increased slightly, according to data collected by the Department of Libraries. But as Vermont doesn’t provide state funding to libraries, it is up to cities and towns to decide how much they want to spend on library services each year.

Data from the Department of Libraries also show that in total, Vermont libraries are spending more than they receive.

The report for 2012 shows that payroll and other expenses went up by $780,000 statewide. When total collection expenditures (acquired books and media) are added in, expenses went up $860,000. Meanwhile, total income from all sources increased by approximately $720,000. That leaves a lot of Vermont libraries facing deficits.

With 183 libraries, Vermont has the most libraries per capita in the country, but many smaller libraries have a slow modernization curve due to lack of funding.

“We are unique in the number of libraries we have, but many are small, part time and underfunded,” said Jeannette Bair, director at the Rochester Public Library.

With a yearly budget of $60,000, the Rochester library has very little to spend on technology. Four of the library’s seven computers were given as donations.

And technology is not the first thing on many libraries’ agenda. For the past five years they have been setting aside money to make their buildings compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In Rochester, the project, which will break ground in September, should have been done 25 years ago, Bair said.

Beyond books

The state library association has been pushing for more technology training for years, said Laurel Stanley, president of the VLA Trustees Section.

“The typical librarian is not older ladies that love books,” she said. “Small libraries need librarians that are trained, and we need to pay them.”

Technology competes with books for shrinking library dollars. Photo by Viola Gad/VTDigger

Technology competes with books for shrinking library dollars. Photo by Viola Gad/VTDigger

Libraries are vital places for people to get connected with government’s support systems, and it is during financial hard times that they are the most needed. That is also when funding is most likely to decline, said Rubi Simon, director at the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington.

“People need the library to get food stamps and government support,” she said. “For people that don’t have computers and Internet connection, that’s where they go to get these services.”

With a level-funded budget last year, large libraries like the Fletcher Free Library are relying on external funding to invest in technology. “Any tech programs or new programs we want to run, we have to raise our own money,” Simon said.

While the number of grants shrank during the financial crisis, the competition between libraries is also a factor.

”Many libraries apply for the same funds, and there are just not as many funds out there,” Simon said.

Some larger municipally funded libraries have opened marketing departments and started with fundraising campaigns to bring in money for special projects, said Reid, the state librarian. The Department of Libraries has also started to offer training in fundraising and advocacy.

One library’s approach

Like its counterparts, the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier is investing in more technology. Despite dealing with a smaller budget, the library’s technology expenses have more than doubled. In 2012, the library spent $12,691 on technology; in the 2013-14 budget, it plans to spend $27,600.

About 30 percent of Kellogg-Hubbard’s budget comes from municipal funding, and it relies on fundraising and grants for the other two-thirds. The budget for 2012 was $896,000, but with its reserves gone, the library must adhere to a decreased budget of $860,000 for the fiscal year 2013-2014.

Part of the savings will come from a new model of leadership, library officials say. The library used to be run by two managing directors, but since Richard Bidnick took over the director position in 2012, the library has a more concentrated leadership structure, he said.

There are essentially two kinds of libraries in Vermont. Municipal libraries, such as the Fletcher Free Library, receive most — and sometimes all of their funding — from cities and towns; incorporated libraries, such as the Kellogg-Hubbard, are usually run as nonprofit organizations and rely on fundraising.

 

In times with financial strains, the library still sees it as vital to offer more free technology to patrons. The library is looking to hire a part-time staffer to work entirely with technology and to teach computer skills to visitors, said Tanya Morehouse, board treasurer.

The library also received a Google grant to set up a conference call system for its meeting rooms and is part of the FiberConnect program, initiated by the Department of Libraries, which will provide the library with 10 to 20 times faster Internet service.

“There is a real strong ethic that the library should be free to the public, and we don’t have any plans to charge for computers,” Bidnick said.

The only charges the library makes is fines for overdue materials and small fees for the use of meeting rooms, Bidnick said.

How libraries works

There are essentially two kinds of libraries in Vermont. Municipal libraries, such as the Fletcher Free Library, receive most — and sometimes all of their funding — from cities and towns; incorporated libraries, such as the Kellogg-Hubbard, are usually run as nonprofit organizations and rely on fundraising.

According to statistics collected by the Department of Libraries, municipal funding made up an average of 25 percent of the total budget for incorporated libraries in Vermont in 2012, while municipally funded libraries received an average of 82 percent of their revenue from cities and towns.

Of the 183 libraries in Vermont, 93 are run as municipal libraries and 61 libraries are run as incorporated libraries, according to data from the Department of Libraries. Several libraries didn’t respond to the state survey, but can be considered incorporated libraries, Reid said.

There are also about a dozen communal libraries in Vermont, which are run in cooperation with educational institutions. They have two distinct staffs, but parts of the book collection and other resources are shared. The largest community library in Vermont is the South Burlington Community Library, which is run together with South Burlington High School, Reid said.

Vermont is one of the eight states in the U.S. that does not provide direct state funding for libraries. That is something that the Vermont Library Association tried to change with a campaign in 2007, asking the Legislature to distribute $1.6 million on top of the money that the libraries receive from municipalities. Such direct aid would have given each library a minimum grant of $1,500, depending on budget and statistical data.

The campaign failed, and the organization has no plans for a similar campaign in 2014, Stanley said.

However, some state money is indirectly spent on libraries. The Department of Libraries receives funding from the state, and it gives some of it to local libraries as grants. It awarded more than $60,000 in 2013.

Among the Department of Libraries’ duties is to provide continuing education and certification for library employees and to administer the Web2 catalog — the electronic interlibrary loan network — and the Vermont Online Library, an online resource that patrons connected to subscribing libraries can access from home or at from library computers.

Recently, a large sum of the department’s budget has been spent on technology projects. The department has purchased equipment such as routers, switches and access points for 43 libraries in the Vermont FiberConnect broadband project, which is done together with the Vermont Telecommunications Authority and Sovernet. The total upgrade, which is still in progress, will come to approximately $190,000, and the project will provide the participating libraries with faster Internet services, said Reid.

A closer study shows that the total budget for Vermont Department of Libraries went up from about $3.4 million in 2013 to $3.8 million for 2014.

The additional money will be used to fund the FiberConnect, and to pay salary and benefits for an administrator of the library Wide Area Network, Reid said.

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