Last summer, when Hartford libraries were in a major financial crunch, the state swept in with emergency funding to reopen two community branches. What a difference six months makes.
Now, the state is desperately trying to dig up some emergency funding for itself. Hartford's libraries have new demands - both on services and its resources, but the funding crunch is far from over.
During a recent morning, dozens of people waited outside in the cold air for Hartford's downtown library to open. Within minutes of the doors unlocking, computer kiosks were full, jackets were thrown over the backs of chairs, and noses are buried in books. More people are coming through that door this year - new library cards applications are on track to be up 12 percent.
There are also increasing demand for services. Kellie O’Donnell manages's the library's career center. She dashes from one computer to the next--answering questions, offering tips, and helping people design resumes.
"We're having a lot more people come in needing help," she says.
A young woman worked at a computer in the library's career corner, while her young daughter sits close by.
“I came in actually to print my resume, but she set me up, like I didn’t even know they had this service.” She didn’t want to give her name because she already has a part-time job. "Right now, I’m a telemarketer and I hate it," she says. She’s looking for something full-time, in social work. And she’ll be back at the library. "Definitely. I have an interview today, but as soon as I’m out I’m going to come right back. I had no idea this was all here."
Aside from the career services, the library offers programs for recent immigrants and income tax preparation. And the price is right.
"Its all free."
Administrator Matt Poland says the recession reminds the public of a library's value.
“I don’t want to be happy about the economy, but we’re seeing books are expensive, when you have to buy them at Barnes and Noble, Netflix is expensive. You can come other library and get an exponential number of DVDs for nothing. It’s just the library card that you need.
But this boom isn't necessarily a boon to the library.
It comes at a time when the library is in transition. The library celebrated the opening of its sprawling 42-million dollar downtown headquarters just over a year ago.
The number of people coming through the door soared, but within months, the library was in crisis. A Hartford Courant investigation revealed rampant security problems, including on-site drug use and sex. And the budget came up 870-thousand dollars short. A zero tolerance policy is now in place to address the security problems. The funding crunch was harder to solve.
“The decision we made at that time was to close two of the branches, and the community reacted very significantly," Poland says.
There were street protests and read-ins. When the school year started with the Mark Twain and Blue Hills branches still closed, state lawmakers swooped in with 200-thousand dollars in emergency funding.The branches reopened, though their hours were cut nearly in half.
In fact, operating hours are down at all nine of Hartford's neighborhood branches, and so is usage. There's also less staff to serve them. The library's also laid off 17 workers, and left other positions unfilled.
But that doesn't mean demand is down. According to a recent library survey at its downtown branch, 2 in 5 patrons came just to use a computer. Like the mother rushing in for a copy of her resume, it was the library's printer that was the essential service.
"The complaint is not enough hours to serve the need on the information technology side, for sure," Poland says.
All this trimming is in preparation for July, when the emergency state funding runs out, and the library expects even less money from the city. Its request from the city is 8.9 million dollars. That's 400-thousand dollars less than this year.
“It is daunting," Poland says. "But you know, what we’re attempting to do now as we plan for the next fiscal year, is to keep everything that we it right now, and to look at over the next year how we’re going to provide these services with less funding coming from the tax payer.”
The library plans to hire a development director soon - to seek out more private and public funds. More cost-cutting will come as the library refocuses. Poland says trimming back the number of branches is still an option.
It will become clearer next month just how much more cutting the library will have to do. That's when Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez presents his proposed budget. The city faces a nearly $ 9 million deficit.