Walk into any public library these days and you'll see the subtle signs of recession.
There, just past the entrance, is a "recently returned" cart full of books still waiting to be re-shelved. See the long line of people waiting to check out, with only one staff member available? Look at how popular those free computers have become. Did you notice the many users who are creating resumes or searching for jobs online?
It may be subtle now, but soon, libraries may have to balance their dwindling budgets by cutting services, jeopardizing everything from preschool story hour to buying new books.
"It's the terrible bind that libraries are in," says Sarah Ann Long, executive director of the North Suburban Library System, one of nine regional library support systems in the state. "They face increased usage and a drop in revenue at the same time."
Historically, economic downturns have always equaled an increase in library patronage. People take advantage of free access to books, movies and computer time. Long, a former president of the American Library Association, says more people applied for a library card nationwide last year than ever before. Evanston Public Library's circulation went up almost 20 percent last year.
"People are coming to the library to help them with their job search," she says. "Employers want an online application and resume … and librarians can help. Libraries are becoming like job central."
But a recession also means reduced local and state budgets and a drop in library funding just when it's needed most. Because local property taxes lag a year or two behind, the drop in property values-and resulting drop in tax collections-are just now hitting local governments.
So, even if the economy is slowly improving, library systems likely haven't faced the worst of the budget crisis. "The outlook is not great," Long says.
The outlook includes a dismal state budget. Earlier this year, the Illinois General Assembly's attempt to address the budget crisis resulted in 50 percent cuts in per capita grants, a vital source of funding for school and public libraries.
Secretary of State Jesse White managed to mitigate the cuts by reallocating federal funds that would normally have gone towards technological advances in libraries. As a result, grants to public libraries were cut just 16 percent, but Long notes such solutions are simply short-term fixes.
Long says they are initiating an e-mail targeted campaign this month to state legislators.
"We're asking legislators to promise to not cut libraries any more and that, when the economy improves, they restore and fully fund grants," she says.
In the meantime, because personnel take up a majority of a library's budget, many libraries have already cut staff to compensate. Both Evanston and Chicago public libraries, for example, are down at least 10 percent of their full-time staff.
Ruth Lednicer, spokesperson for the Chicago Public Libraries, says the biggest loss in staff were those who re-shelved books. Even office staff members, such as those in the accounting office, are heading to libraries to help shelve books.
Chicago Public Libraries has already taken steps to prepare for next year's tight budget. Beginning in January, hours for local branches will be reduced to eight-hour days on a staggered schedule. For example, one library may be open 10 a.m.-6 p.m., but a library nearby will be open noon-8 p.m. to allow patrons to access an open branch.
"This is the least disruptive way to scale back and allow our staff to be least stretched thin, while giving patrons the service they deserve," Lednicer said. She expects the schedule to continue until the economy improves.
Still, Lednicer says that while times are challenging, Chicago faces a brighter future than some major cities. In September, the entire Seattle library system was closed for a week to compensate for budget cuts. The public library in Philadelphia faced the possibility of closing its doors permanently if the cash-strapped state failed to provide funding.
Closer to home, the small library in Robbins, a village in Cook County, almost closed its doors permanently due to the recession's impact. The library was saved, at least for now, by NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, who grew up in Robbins and donated an unspecified amount in September.
As the Illinois General Assembly meets to discuss the budget this month, and as many communities will also be planning future budgets, libraries will learn more about their future. Worst case scenarios-including cutting programs, periodicals and newspapers, or even library hours-are already being developed.
Evanston's Library Director Mary Johns says they are considering changes that might help reduce costs and prevent worst-case scenarios from coming true.
"We're contemplating where we can apply technology to streamline our process, things like self check-out, which would allow us to deploy more staff for customer service," she says. "If you aren't spending 20 hours checking out people, you can spend more time helping them" find what they need.
Evanston has also found inexpensive ways to provide programs by partnering with other groups, such as Northwestern University and the public schools. Larger library systems like Evanston also benefit from foundations that can supplement material purchases or summer reading programs.
Johns says she personally hopes to preserve programs for children, since libraries can play such a key role in early childhood development and literacy knowledge. "They grow up and not only become library users, but more effective community members," she says.
Concerned library patrons can help by joining 'friends of the
library' groups, contacting local and state representatives about
library funding and signing up with www.saveillinois
libraries.com. People can also volunteer at their library, depending on union rules. Long says even simple efforts-such as returning books back to the proper library branch-save staff time and fuel costs for the library.
If there is a plus side to the budget crisis, say library employees, it may be that people are realizing the importance of libraries as a community resource, meeting place and source of knowledge.
"It's less about a personal value-we all use the library for our own interests-but more about the public value of a library," Johns says. "We need to stop and think: What would our community be without a library?"
Lisa Applegate is a freelance writer and mom of one living in Chicago.
See more of Lisa's stories here.