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Libraries Bracing For More Cutbacks As Demand Grows

Now that Gov. Deval Patrick has announced another round of deep budget cuts, public libraries statewide are expected to take a big financial hit. But many libraries are already hurting. Six years ago libraries throughout Massachusetts lost 25 percent of their state funding. Now they're about to get hit again, at a time when people need them more than ever.

[SOUND OF CHILDREN GATHERING IN LIBRARY READING ROOM]

BRIDGEWATER, Mass. — January 26, 2009 — At the Bridgewater Public Library, about three dozen very excited children pile into a basement room for story hour. Their parents, mostly moms, sit beside them as they crowd on the floor in front of a table of books.

CINDY DAVIS: "Good morning, everyone!"

CHILDREN: "Good morning!"

Library assistant Cindy Davis kicks off the storytelling with a winter classic.

DAVIS: How many of you know Frosty the Snowman?

CHILDREN: I do! I do! I do!

The kids are riveted as Davis reads each page. She also has them sing and dance and tell rhymes before she quiets them down and reads some more. Stacey Silverman of Bridgewater says her two young daughters love the library and its story hour.

SILVERMAN: It's just a time for me to sit with them, read them books. They have to be responsible, you know? They learn the library rules: be quiet, don't run.

But this story hour could be on the chopping block for the second time in recent years.

BETTY GREGG: We've been cut to the bone for a long time.

Library director Betty Gregg says in recent years her budget was slashed almost in half. A staff of thirty-one people was reduced to eight. At one point the library was open only fifteen hours a week.

The library was even decertified by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners because it's open so few hours. Yet this is the only public library in Bridgewater, a town of twenty-five thousand people. And Gregg says more cuts are coming.

GREGG: It was surprising to the other libraries for us to be reduced to, at this point, nothing. And now it is happening to a lot of the surrounding towns.

In Fitchburg, for example, which has 40,000 residents, the library is open only three days a week. Still, Rob Maier, director of the state Board of Library Commissioners, says libraries are gearing up for more budget-cutting due to the state's fiscal woes.

MAIER: The thing that's so frustrating to everybody involved in libraries about this is that in a time when the economy falters, that's the time that libraries are used even more than ever.

The town of Hull may have to close its library entirely. Other libraries are planning for layoffs and reduced hours, including few or no hours on evenings and weekends, when many working people need them most.

Some libraries will subscribe to fewer newspapers, magazines, and online databases. And some will stop buying new books and other materials. Again, Rob Maier.

MAIER: In a time when everybody's very conscious of their personal or family budget, the ability to get books, CDs, DVDs from your public library is a significant factor.

Maryellen Loud, who's director of the Arlington public library, says people these days depend on libraries for very practical reasons, too.

LOUD: With this bad economy, people are coming in looking for jobs and they're coming to get resume books or they're coming to use the computers to go online and to try to find job possibilities.

But Maryellen Loud's library in Arlington is also bracing for more cutbacks. So it's turning to private fundraising.

For example, the library had been closed on Sundays due to earlier budget cuts. Then it calculated that it would cost about eleven hundred dollars to keep the library open for three hours each Sunday. So it asked patrons to chip in. Kathy Fennelly is one of the people who contributed.

FENNELLY: You look at the library budget and it's huge. But when you see that one Sunday costs $1,150, you say, 'Oh, I can give a chunk of that!'

Enough people gave chunks, in fact, that Arlington's main library is open again on Sundays at least until May. Loud, the library director, says that's a nice victory. But she's sorry that three hours each Sunday is all patrons get.

LOUD: It's just too bad that in bad economic times library hours get cut because that's when the public needs their libraries the most.

But state and local library officials say Massachusetts residents should expect to see their libraries seriously diminished once the latest budget cuts take effect.

This program aired on January 26, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Sacha Pfeiffer Twitter Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.

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