Libraries cope with staff cuts, sporadic closures
By Suzanne Roig
Advertiser Staff Writer
A hiring freeze and a 20 percent budget cut are the chief challenges facing the Hawai'i State Public Library in the economic downturn, and now the system is so lean that often there's not enough staff to keep a library open.
Almost weekly the library system sends out announcements of libraries cutting back hours because of staffing reductions. This comes at a time when the library is experiencing 10-year record-high circulation as residents cut back their own spending on things such as new book purchases and Internet access at home, State Librarian Richard Burns said.
"We are focusing on our core services," Burns said. "As we're forced to reduce hours, we have boosted our e-book purchase to provide an opportunity to access the library even when it's closed.
"If the hiring freeze was lifted, we'd still not have the funds to hire people. We are hoping for an economic recovery to solve those problems."
It isn't looking any better for next fiscal year, Burns said. The libraries' budget that was sent to lawmakers this year was 3 percent lower than the $25 million they're working with this year, he said.
"We were able to make most of the cuts with the furloughs and vacancy savings," he said. "The lack of staff will only get worse this coming year."
To offset the gloom, the library system is expanding its reach with electronic books and materials and forming even tighter bonds with its Friends of the Library group to fill in budget gaps.
Two campaigns — one run by the library system, called Keep Your Library Open, and the other by the friends group, called Keep the Doors Open — have raised $270,000. Launched in September, the amount is far short of the $3 million the groups had hoped to collect to offset the 20 percent budget cut ordered by the governor.
"We have to resort to extraordinary measures to keep the library open," said Byrde Cestare, Friends of the Public Library executive director. "There's a lot of needs we'd like to see met. Now we're back to a keeping the doors open kind of thing.
"It's gotten very dramatic."
The Hawai'i library system is no different than other systems across the country, Burns said. In other states they've closed branches completely, weeks at a time or scaled back hours. Hawai'i's answer is 12 furlough days through May and to tap into the funds raised in the two open door campaigns, he said.
In real terms, the cutbacks mean that library patrons like Ruby Fountain and her four children can't come to their favorite library, Kalihi-Pālama Public Library, as often as they would like.
The family — Fountain, her husband and their three daughters and a son — go to the library three or four times a week. Recently they were all there on a school furlough Friday. Their high-schooler did her homework. Their son looked at books. And their two younger daughters collected children's books to take. Fountain and her husband relaxed by going online or reading magazines.
But last week they tried to go on Wednesday, only to find the doors shuttered because of a staff furlough.
"We do everything here," Fountain said. "We rent DVDs, get cartoon books, go on the Internet and take out a dozen or so books at a time."
This is the new reality, said Brenda Freitas-Obregon, Kalihi-Pālama Public Library children's librarian.
The library, which is next to H-1 Freeway and just celebrated its 60th birthday last year, has had to make cutbacks in the past, but never like this.
In 2002 the library cut back to 40 hours a week after it had been a six-day operation. At that time it had seven people on staff. The library was able to restore six of those hours in 2006, but in January went down to a 38-hour workweek with two to three Wednesday furloughs thrown in this year, Freitas-Obregon said.
With five staffers now — one retired and the other was transferred to another library — and being open 46 hours a week, six days a week, no one could go on vacation or be sick without hindering the operation, Freitas-Obregon said.
"We never had a full staff to have five-days-a-week, six-days-a-week operation," she said. "We agonized over the decision and we decided to cut back the hours."
Now the library is open Monday through Friday.
"Most of our patrons walk here," Freitas-Obregon said. "We have a lot of children come after school and tutors meet here. Closing Saturdays did cause concern in the community, but most people do seem to understand."
Friends executive director Cestare said the Keep the Doors Open drive will be used to help fund reading programs, other special programs, continuing education for staffers and helping with book budgets.
"The need is increasing," Cestare said. "Even in good years we try to expand library services. We have a wish list of what we'd like to see at the libraries. Libraries are the place where people go to use the resources for free that they can't keep at home. It's tragic that the libraries can't be there for them."