On the Island, the library is the place to be
Island libraries are far-removed from past images of libraries as whispery, prosaic havens. The Island's six libraries teem with music, entertainment, children learning, and adults sharpening life skills. People are using a wider range of library-provided resources, including family entertainment, education, financial planning and wellness programs and job-hunting resources. Some Islanders are using their libraries as virtual offices to help them through a difficult economic period.
Edgartown library director Felicia Cheney says she hears comments that relate to the economy: "For example," she says, "I heard a lot of, 'right in my price range' comments about a program called Music Tuesday. This summer was really busy on the computers from people not having broadband or the money to pay for it. We were always picking up resumés left on the printer. We had a resumé writing program, and parents were showing up with their grown kids."
More than half-million Island library transactions were recorded last year. The librarians note that the Island's strong literary tradition promotes good libraries and regular usage. Islanders also use the library for entertainment, particularly in the winter when money is tight and there is less to do.
As local and national economic statistics slumped over the past 18 months, library circulation, the number of books, DVDs, CDs and other materials accessed rose five to 10 percent around the country. But on the Island, library transactions increased between 13 percent in Tisbury, and 30 percent in West Tisbury and Chilmark. Edgartown recorded a nearly 19-percent circulation gain. Aquinnah saw a 20-percent increase, despite limited access to the complete collection because of ongoing building repairs. The Oak Bluffs Library, in its second year in its new building, recorded a 66.3-percent increase in circulation since 2005 (the last year in the old library), and a 12-percent increase over last year.
Island libraries, including Chilmark and Aquinnah, lead the state in the number of programs offered per capita in 2008, many of which offer help coping with tough economic times. Island patrons lead the state in using the programs, according to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.
"Our program offerings are up 22 percent and attendees for them are up more than 50 percent," West Tisbury library director Beth Kramer says. "We are on the front lines for all sorts of information - job searches, medical and wellness questions, and technical computer questions. People come in to use the library as their office -scanning, faxing, and copying."
The librarians point out that the surge occurred despite warnings that the mature electronic Information Age would mean the demise of the library.
Ebba Hierta, head librarian in Chilmark, says, "More people with laptops are showing up. They've cancelled their services. They are in the library and in the parking lot using our wireless. (Libraries do not track wireless users)."
Ms. Hierta continues, "And anecdotally, people tell us they used to use Net Flicks, but now say: 'Why pay when we can use the library?'"
According to state library officials, in 2008, the average library user would have spent $479 to buy the materials and service provided free by a local library. If so, the average Island library user would have shelled out between $1,400 and $3,800 for the resources used last year.
The average Massachusetts community spent $33 per person for library expenses in 2008. Aquinnah led the state at $253, and Chilmark, at $239, was second. In all, eight of the top ten spenders were Cape or Island communities.
Island voters protect their libraries at annual town meetings and every library has an aggressive and thriving volunteer organization. Grateful librarians say that last year cost-cutting town leaders heeded the adage that library business gets better when the economy goes bad and spared library staff and service hours in their budget cuts. Those decisions allowed library staffs to meet their double-digit demand increases.
But the financial future for libraries remains cloudy. Tacked to the West Tisbury library door, a September memo from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners announced a state proposal to level state aid and reduce funding by 16 to 27 percent for library training and support programs.
For Dangoule Budris, the Oak Bluffs librarian, it is a Dickensian period - the best and worst of times. "We've been able to maintain the same hours," she says. "People want us to be open more hours. We lost one 20-hour staffer and couldn't refill the job. However, for fiscal 2010, it's the real thing and reality is a zero-increase budget.
"To keep state certification, we must lend without cost, and be open a certain number of hours per week based on year-round population. A certain percentage of library budgets must be spent on acquisitions, generally 20 percent for our population base. Last year, we spent $90,000 on materials. We'll spend less, perhaps $81,000, this year.
Ms. Kramer says, "We're hoping for level funding from the town next year," adding that Island communities do not receive much state aid now. "The principal impact of the proposed cuts will be in lost training opportunities provided by the state."
In the meantime, user numbers show that Island libraries provided a service every 42 seconds of every day they were open in the year ending on June 30, 2009.
Jack Shea is a regular contributor to The Times.