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Closing Library Branches Was Painful, Necessary

PAUL D. SHIPMAN

July 07, 2008

This year, given the deepest budget cuts we have ever faced, the board of directors of the Hartford Public Library was forced to make painful decisions regarding library services and hours. We do not make these decisions lightly. We recognize the important role the library plays in the city and are proud that our delivery of quality services has made the library so vital to our community.

The city is dealing with harsh economic realities. As a result, the city's allocation to the library this year is nearly $900,000 less than the board's proposed budget, which was designed to maintain services and staff at current levels. Each of the past several years has seen budget reductions for the library, but nothing of this scale. With past reductions of $200,000 or $300,000, the library has been able to make small adjustments in hours and services, but a cut of this magnitude makes such adjustments unworkable.

Without additional funds from the city, we are forced to make cuts in staff and services that make it impossible to operate at our current size. The board and staff explored several options, including different approaches to reducing hours across the library system. None of those options produced the required savings.

Equally important, they resulted in a library that was considerably weakened in its ability to meet community needs. Past cutbacks reduced us to being open 34 hours a week a bare minimum of service that residents have told us is not enough. By reducing the number of branches, the library is able to at least partially preserve many of the services that customers tell us they want.

The painful decision to close branches was made with great care and thought. The board reviewed many criteria, including usage patterns, neighborhood population density, distance to other library branches, lease terms at branches and the capacity of our Library on Wheels to provide supplemental services. Other factors included the level of car ownership in neighborhoods and the ability of residents to use public transportation to reach other branches. We also looked at alternative service providers in the neighborhood, especially for young people, which could help offset a loss in programs.

Many of our services are provided with additional support the library works hard to raise through grants and donations from the state, federal government, foundations, corporations and individuals. There have been suggestions to use the library's endowment to prevent branch closings. The endowment is a precious fund, built dollar by dollar over several generations to provide income for the library now and in the future.

Most of the endowment is designated by the donors to provide specific services or materials. By not attacking the legally protected principal of the endowment, the library is able to return nearly $300,000 to the city's general fund each year to offset our costs. An additional $100,000 each year is devoted to purchasing new materials for library customers. To reduce the earning power of the library's endowment by invading principal would further destabilize the library's future, making deeper cuts and reductions in service even more certain next year and in years to come. We hope the community will join us to grow the endowment to generate more income by actively seeking donations that support our libraries.

It is small consolation to neighborhood residents who cherish their branches, but even after these closures, the Hartford Public Library leads similar communities in some important measures. Compared with Bridgeport, New Haven and Stamford, as well as Providence and Worcester, Hartford's library has the most library sites at 10. Of these five cities, only Stamford has a smaller population than Hartford; Providence and Worcester each have an additional 50,000 residents.

After the closures, only Providence, with nine locations, will exceed Hartford. Of those cities, only Hartford, New Haven and Stamford have bookmobiles. Hartford's Library on Wheels makes four times as many stops as the other cities' bookmobiles. Despite the closures, we have a library system that is a regional leader in both size and scope of service.

The library's board of directors takes seriously its commitment to providing vital services to the people of Hartford. While budget cuts are changing the way we deliver those services, we strive to continue providing the most comprehensive and best service we can in difficult times.

Paul Shipman is a member of the board of directors of the Hartford Public Library and a past president. He submitted this on behalf of the library board of directors.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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