Feb. 21, 2012
BARNSTABLE, Mass. — In the basement of Sturgis Library in Barnstable, director Lucy Loomis moves some boxes around on the shelves lining a small, climate-controlled room that looks like a bank vault.
She finds what she wants and takes it to a nearby table where she removes a ship's passport from the early days of American history. Sturgis Library dates back to the 1860s, and like most libraries, for most of its history it focussed on printed materials: primary documents like the ones in this box, as well as books, magazines and newspapers.
"This is really interesting. It's a ship's passport for a ship that was passing through Barnstable Harbor," she says. "And it's signed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison."
It's an impressive document. But today, libraries are as concerned with bytes of data as they are with pieces of paper.
"Some of us see a decrease in traditional circulation," Loomis says, "which means people come and plunk their books on the counter and check them out. But they're using the library in different ways. They're using the computers, they're using e-books and audio book downloadables. They come to the library to read and get together, and come to programs, so we're seeing usage increase, the number of people in the buildings increase. They are coming to apply for jobs and learn languages and lots of things."
Librarians report a marked increase in patron visits and questions, an increase that can be dated back to when the economy began slowing down. On Cape Cod, circulation numbers jumped 10 percent the first year of the recession.
With finances tight, people are cutting things such as wireless internet access, newspaper subscriptions and music purchases from their household budgets. And, says Falmouth librarian Jill Erickson, they're looking to libraries to make up for it.
"People are just realizing you can use your library as your own personal Netflix," Erickson says. "People just reserve a ton of DVDs and when they get their DVD they get their DVD. I mean. So, it's essentially Netflix but its free. So I've seen a lot of that as well. you wouldn't think music CDs would be so popular. But if you can get it for free, why not go to the public library?"
It's great that more people are using libraries. But libraries have their own money problems.
Massachusetts has a library certification process that tracks things such as hours open, spending upon materials and overall budgets. This year, state library commissioners received 123 requests to waive those criteria, and it granted nearly all of them.
That's one-third of all the library systems in the state asking for certification waivers because of budget-related issues.
Among the five Cape and Island towns requesting waivers, Barnstable saw a slight increase in funding, while Falmouth, Provincetown and Yarmouth were just about level-funded. But in Bourne, library director Patrick Marshall says the library took a significant reduction.
“Budget-wise we were cut 13 percent this past year," Marshall says. "Which was a pretty big cut for us. It was the first cut we’ve sustained. In this economy, I think the town as a whole has tried hard to maintain services and resources for the town, but you know, the economy has just been in the dumpers for long enough now that it’s caught up with us, so to speak."
Bourne's Finance Committee recently restored some library funds, bringing the total reduction to just under 10 percent. But staffing is back to the same level as the early 1990s, as usage is at an all-time high. An average day welcomes about 400 people. About 200 people use library computers each week, while last year the Children's Department — staffed with one and a half people — served 8,000 patrons in various programs.
of Public Libraries provide public access to the Internet.
Public libraries are the number one point of online access for people without internet connections at home, school or work.
"I don’t know how many people are using our wi-fi access because I haven’t been able to figure out how to quantify that yet," he says. "They’ll sit in the parking lot. They’ll sit at all hours of the day, at night doing that."
With the changes in usage and technology have come changes in culture. Most public libraries see their mission to include being a "commons area" for people — a place to interact. At the West Tisbury Library on Martha's Vineyard, director Beth Kramer is more likely to hand you a pair of noise-reduction headphones than shush another patron.
“It’s a four letter word, shhh,” Kramer says with a laugh. “Yeah. We’re a pretty lively group. And we actually don’t even have a quiet space here. ... What I did is I bought sound-proof headphones. So if you want a quiet space, we give them the headphones and you can create your own quiet space.”
Libraries are not just for book reading and puppet shows anymore. They've expanded their idea of literacy to include teaching and allowing people to read and write across platforms. They make available specialized databases, search engines and technology classes. They serve community groups such as home-schoolers and knitting circles, making most programming and acquisition decisions based upon the needs of the community.
In Harwich, where older adults continue to relocate and retire, the Brooks Free Library boasts one of the most robust library programs in the nation for the blind and sight-impaired. For example, this large Braille embosser translates and prints text documents into Braille. Carla Burke coordinates the program, which also makes available scanners that can read documents aloud and loans magnifiers, e-book readers and Braille-punch kits.
"Cape-wide, the population is aging," she says, "and what we are finding, what we see with the patrons that come in, the majority of patrons we see coming in are over the age of 65 and diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration."
Like many libraries across the state, Harwich has dealt with its budget issues by reducing hours. Brooks Library director Ginny Hewitt says Harwich reduced it's days open from six to five each week.
“There are a number of libraries on the Cape that are open Tuesday to Saturday," she says. "Just kind of the reality.”
State library officials say it's also the reality across the Commonwealth. Rob Mayer, the director of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, says libraries also are reducing the dollars spent on acquisitions and cutting hours.
"Yes," he says, "in the last several years hours of service in public libraries have been reduced. And that’s generally speaking because staffing levels have been reduced. And that all tracks back to the local economy that we’re all finding our way through."
The good news, Mayer says, is that in most communities, reductions to library budgets appear to be in line with budget cuts to other city and town departments, which means libraries are not being singled out for disproportionate cuts.
Subscribe to WGBH News Emails