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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Staff vacancies still major problem for state's libraries

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Education Writer

Leina Sellitto and her daughter, Sophia, arrived at Kaimuki Public Library on Thursday morning ready for preschool storytime, only to find that it has been canceled because of a staff shortage.

The Kaimuki Public Library has been using temporary hires to cover some of its six vacancies so customers will not notice a significant loss in service.

The Kaimuki Public Library canceled its Thursday-morning preschool storytime this spring. Last year, the library cut its hours and started closing on Fridays and Saturdays.

Photos by Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

"It's disappointing," said Sellitto, balancing the toddler in her arms. "It was something that was educational for her. There's not a lot of stuff out there to do that's free."

The state's library system, which last year reduced hours and canceled bookmobile service because of budget cuts, is still treading water.

With 108 vacancies — nearly 20 percent of its staff — Jo Ann Schindler, the state librarian, has no immediate plans to restore hours at all of the state's 50 public libraries, although she is working with labor unions to bring back hours at some branches.

Despite the diminished service, 81 percent of 4,700 library patrons surveyed last November gave libraries either excellent or good marks. Asked to list their priorities, most patrons wanted more books and materials and libraries to be open more hours.

The library system did receive a boost from the state Legislature this year, which provided an additional $1 million for library books and materials and $3.5 million in capital improvement money for Americans with Disabilities Act projects.

Lawmakers have also approved 19 staff positions to open the Kapolei Public Library later this year. The new, two-story facility was a symbol of the system's financial woes two years ago when former state librarian Virginia Lowell declined to accept donated books after lawmakers agreed to only part of the money needed for the branch. Donated materials are now being used at a temporary reading room at the library, which will be the second largest in the system, after the main branch downtown, once it officially opens.

"We are really thrilled with the support that we received from the Legislature," Schindler said.

Schindler, who replaced Lowell after she retired last summer, has won good reviews from state school board members and lawmakers for her communication skills. Even though library hours and services remain reduced, there has been no real public or political pressure on Schindler.

"I think Jo Ann has done a really good job," said Carol Gabbard, chairwoman of the school board's public libraries and charter schools committee.

State Sen. Bob Hogue, R-24th (Kailua, Kane'ohe) was among the lawmakers who called on Lowell to resign last year after she ordered libraries to cut back to five-day, 40-hour operating schedules when the library budget was reduced by $500,000.

However, Hogue described Schindler's leadership as a "tremendous step in the right direction."

"I have not received any direct complaints," Hogue said of his constituents. "But I'm always concerned when library services are cut back. I would hope that we would be able to restore these services soon."

The immediate issue, Schindler said, is filling staff vacancies. Last year, the library system had 70 vacancies, and has since filled 35 positions, but the number of vacancies has swelled to 108.

Aside from a lack of money to pay for enough new hires to fill the jobs, the library system is also having trouble with retention and recruitment, so most branches will likely remain on five-day, 40-hour schedules for now. "Everyone is coping and doing the best they can," Schindler said.

People on Maui, in particular, have asked for the return of bookmobile service, which was also cut on O'ahu and the Big Island. Schindler said the state is looking at the long-term condition of the bookmobile vehicles, whether smaller vans could be used and whether the service is a priority, given other demands on the system.

Meanwhile, Schindler said she plans to spread the $1 million in new books and materials money across the branches, which now have about 3.3 million books, down from 3.5 million in 1996.

At the Kaimuki library, acting branch manager Daniel Roffman said he wants to restore service, but not until all vacancies are filled. Last year, the library cut its hours and started closing on Fridays and Saturdays. The library is using temporary hires to cover some of its six vacancies so customers will not notice a significant loss in service.

Kaimuki had been holding the preschool storytime on Thursday mornings for several years, but canceled the events this spring. The library is recruiting a juvenile-section librarian who would lead the activity.

"It's something that we would like to do if we have the funds to get these positions filled," Roffman said.

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8084.