With recent news of libraries closing, hours being cut and services being reduced around the Denver area and the nation, it’s important not to lose sight of the growing need for library services in the community.
It is well documented that in an economic downturn, library usage goes up, and the Jefferson County Public Library is experiencing this firsthand. Compared to this time last year, JCPL has seen nearly 150,000 more people come through its doors. In 2008, 2.7 million people visited our locations for computers, programs, materials, job-search assistance and more — more than 100,000 of whom were children attending programs at the library. The library is a safety net, meeting basic human service needs many cannot access on their own.
One of the biggest needs among our patrons is computer use. Often, public libraries are the only place to go for free computer and Internet access, and with more people unable to afford a computer or the Internet at home, the library’s computers are constantly being used. In fact, the library’s 300 computers have been reserved more than 680,000 times this year, totaling 316,000 hours — and demand continues to grow.
The library has also seen the impact the recession has had on families and has adjusted services accordingly. Our Traveling Children’s Library and on-site story times educate preschoolers to improve their reading skills before entering grade school; free homework help is available through the Online Library; the innovative eTrain Mobile Training Lab, a partnership with the Jefferson County Workforce Center, provides additional job search and computer training skills outside the library.
In addition, each of our full-service libraries provides free computer classes, in addition to access to the Internet; staff can teach patrons how to use databases to find job opportunities and apply for jobs, and can also assist job applicants in researching companies when preparing for an interview.
Each year, beginning in February, all JCPL locations provide tax preparation assistance for those who can’t afford it otherwise — particularly seniors.
Unfortunately, local governments are not immune to the effects of the economy. The library understands the challenge Jefferson County is facing trying to balance the 2010 budget, and as a component unit of the county, we are committed to assisting the county commissioners in their efforts. The library learned that the commissioners have recommended further reducing our budget by approximately $1.3 million. Library staff have revised our operating budget to meet this reduction in revenue, even though it will require the library to modify the way we deliver services.
The county has looked to the library to dip into our fund balance to help defray some of the effects this reduction in revenue will have. The library has a healthy fund balance, which we have judiciously built up over the past 23 years, to help pay for the construction of libraries and to maintain our facilities. The library is willing to tighten its belt in 2010 but cannot weather a sustained reduction in revenue. Of the approximately $12 million in our fund balance, the commissioners require the library to set aside $2.8 million (or 10 percent of library revenue). The rest is allocated to fund important projects as part of our long-term plan to meet the changing needs of the county, including needed repairs to our 10 facilities and building reconfigurations to meet changes in service, and longer-term plans to construct and operate new facilities in under-served areas in Jefferson County.
The cuts the library is proposing to make for next year are painful but manageable. Should the library be forced to continue cuts beyond 2010, it is unavoidable that the cuts will be more severe, including a significant reduction to much-needed programs and services.
Although JCPL is among the most leanly staffed and underfunded library systems in the metro area, we have been diligent in ensuring that available funds are used to respond to the needs of our citizens. Our highly skilled staff will continue to provide the best library service possible with the resources we have.
Marcellus Turner is the executive director of the Jefferson County Public Library.