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Money on the Shelves: Jurisdictions Take Variety of Approaches to Funding Libraries

Some have recovered from the recession, others are still struggling.

Library funding across Northern Virginia

Library funding across Northern Virginia

What is the future of the neighborhood library?

That's an open question as jurisdictions across America are rethinking their library system, a revaluation brought on by tight budgets and technological change. Here in Northern Virginia, jurisdictions have taken a variety of approaches to funding libraries. Some, such as Arlington, have restored almost all the funding cut during the recession. Others, such as Fairfax County, lag behind the statewide average.

"We are very concerned about this because our funding is far down behind the rest of the state of Virginia and in the entire metropolitan area as well," said Charles Fegan, vice chairman of the Fairfax County Public Library Board of Trustees. "How are we going to get books on the shelves? How are we going to get hours?"

Supporters of pubic libraries are concerned that elected officials who control funding don't seem as committed to the idea of public libraries as they once were. Some of that change is technological. In an era when bookstores are vanishing and books are available for download, some are questioning the logic behind having public libraries at all. That's why libraries across Northern Virginia took massive hits when budgets became tighter because of the recession.

"The libraries are a convenient target because a lot of people look at the libraries relative to many other things and decide they are not as important," said Alexandria City Councilman Justin Wilson. "I don't necessarily always come to that conclusion, but I do think libraries are changing. They're definitely changing."

BACK IN FISCAL YEAR 2009, before the recession hit, the Fairfax County Public Library system had a budget of $33.1 million. Since that time, members of the Board of Supervisors have slashed about 20 percent out of budget for the library system, which has reduced the numbers of hours libraries are open and the collections available on the shelves. As a result, library officials have had to get creative to stretch their limited budget as far as they can.

"As an example, there are some days that we don't answer the telephone," said Mary Mulrenan, marketing director with the Fairfax County Public Libraries. "We just don't have the staffing."

When the recession hit, all Northern Virginia jurisdictions cut back on library funding. Some have made efforts to restore funding, while others have lagged behind. Arlington had led the way in restoring almost all the hours that were cut in their neighborhood libraries, although the Central Library still opens an hour later than it used to and closes an hour earlier than it used to. But overall, Arlington's library system remains one of the best in the region. Earlier this month, the Library Journal named the Arlington Public Library one of six "star" libraries in Virginia.

"The library is the only place you can get face-to-face personalized research assistance that you would never get online," said Peter Golkin, public information officer for Arlington Public Library. "Librarians are a professionally trained group of experts. They're kind of like concierges for all sorts of life issues."

LIBRARIES REMAIN a budget target, even as jurisdictions emerge from the recession. Last year, for example, Alexandria City Manager Rashad Young's proposed budget included a proposal to reduce hours at three libraries as well as the materials budget at the central library and services to the visually impaired. The proposal would have eliminated three employee positions and slashed about $240,000 out of the operating budget, but members of the Alexandria City Council restored funding when they voted on a final budget.

"The citizens really turned out and said no. The City Council responded, and the cuts were restored," said Oscar Fitzgerald, vice chairman of the Alexandria Library Board. "We're facing the same thing again this year because the city is facing a substantial downturn in their income, and they are looking for cuts across the board."

Nowhere will the battle be more pitched than Fairfax County, where libraries are still working with reduced staffing and reduced collections. Members of the library's board of trustees say they are ready to make a pitch to the Board of Supervisors that it's time to restore the hours that were reduced and add back the funding for the collections.

"A library is the heart of a community," said Fegan. "I've spoken to a number of people who have come into this country, and the first thing they did was get a library card."