If you’re looking for Walker Library Director Karen Valley, her office is probably the last place you’ll find her. Whether she’s filling in at the circulation desk or fielding questions from patrons on the floor, she’s certainly not standing still.

“We are all pitching in and helping out,” Valley said, referring to how her staff is dealing with the aftermath of city budget cuts that have left the Westbrook library short two part-time employees and $22,000.

“It’s been a rough two weeks,” she said, and predicts that it will take two more before she has a handle on how she’s going to run the library.

As the downturn in the economy has made a penny-pincher out of almost everyone, more and more people have been turning to libraries for free entertainment and as a resource for information for everything from finding fuel assistance to searching for jobs online. At the same time, the libraries themselves haven’t escaped the effects of the recession either, and staff members are trying to do more with less.

According to James Jackson Sanborn, executive director of Maine InfoNet, which manages catalogs for 76 libraries across the state, book checkouts in the past three months have increased by more than 12 percent since the same time last year. Molly Larson, president of the Maine Library Association, said an increase in circulation only paints part of the picture. More people are coming to use computers and attend programs, as well.

Valley said she’s still trying to assess how the library can continue to operate six days per week with the shortage of workers and money. If the city decides not to put money back into the library’s budget for next year, she said, it could mean cutting back business hours, which would come at the wrong time for residents.

“The community needs us and the services we provide. We should be open more hours, not less,” Valley said.

Mayor Bruce Chuluda said he had to keep the health and safety of residents at the top of his priorities when deciding where the city, which is facing a $580,000 budget shortfall, could make cuts.

“Nobody wants to lose personnel,” he said. “In difficult times, we have to make tough decisions.”

Though he said the library is an integral part of the community, he doesn’t think the cuts there will significantly affect the service it provides to the community.

Less than a mile down Main Street, the Warren Memorial Library has already had to cut its hours of operation. Privately funded by an endowment, the Warren library has been hurt by the stock market drop. At the same time, Director Wendy Hysko said, there’s been an increase in activity there, too.

“We’re seeing new faces every day,” she said, noting the popularity of story times and the number of people using the computers. “It’s a struggle for us to keep up.”

Baxter Memorial Library in Gorham reduced its hours in July, after losing a reference librarian to budget cuts. Director Pam Turner said Baxter, too, has “seen a huge increase in circulation.”

“We’ve been busier than we’ve ever been,” she said Tuesday.

QUALITY CONTROL

Valley said Walker library has made huge strides in technology over the past two years. The number of computers increased from four to 20, and the library launched a new Web site. It joined MINERVA – Mapping the Internet Electronic Resources Archive – a statewide library consortium that links collections and provides deliveries of inter-library materials.

But with staff stretched thin, keeping up on advances in technology is one of the things that’s falling by the wayside.

Jen Leo was hired a year and a half ago as the head of circulation and public computer system coordinator, but these days, she’s been spending nearly all her time helping people check out books.

“I didn’t have enough time to keep things going before,” Leo said about her dual role managing circulation and the computer system and Web site.

“When you’re short-staffed, you can’t really provide that quality service,” Leo said.

Marian Peterson, head of adult services, said she hasn’t been able to keep up with her increased responsibilities, either. She said a resident came in recently asking questions about finding fuel assistance.

“I couldn’t help them because I was dragged in three different directions at the same time,” she said.

But the strain that came through in the voices of the all staff members as they prepared to open the library Tuesday morning wasn’t due to the effect the cuts have had on their positions, but on their patrons. Talking about the difficulties the library is facing, Peterson got teary eyed.

“We feel like we’re handicapped,” she said.

AT A LOSS

For Valley, the loss of a part-time teen services position was the most devastating. She said she’s already seen a decline in books taken out by teens, since there’s been no one there to make suggestions.

“To make those connections, it takes a person,” she said.

The computers were moved from the teen room to the adult area upstairs, so Peterson could monitor them. A group of teens playing “Dungeons & Dragons” in the library Monday said it’s changed the atmosphere of their hangout spot.

“We always have to be quiet upstairs,” said 14-year-old Nicholas Wooster.

“I think they just felt more right down here,” said his brother, Scot Parlin, 13.

For Peterson, not being able to purchase new materials has had the biggest effect on the service she provides. She said someone came in the other day looking for a book about real estate investments, but what she had to offer was outdated.

“Today it’s investments; tomorrow it’s Alzheimer’s,” she said about the myriad topics for which libraries are expected to provide the most current, accurate information. And that isn’t a problem that’s going to go away.

“When you have money again, you need twice as much to fill in the holes,” she said.

With the state of the economy, Valley said, residents are turning to the library as a resource for vital information. She said homeless people have come in looking for help finding apartments. Others applying to jobs have turned to her to look over their cover letters.

“People need the extra help,” she said, and fewer staff members, a lack of funding for new materials and the potential decrease in business hours all make it harder for the library to come to the aid of people in need.

“We’re trying and it’s tough. It’s very, very tough,” Valley said.

Tyler Benwell, 10, reads a comic book in the teen room of the Walker Memorial Library. A teen services employee was one of two part-time positions recently cut at the library, which has seen an increase in activity over the past several months.Kayci Mero, 14, uses one of Walker Memorial Library’s 20 computers. Library staff says more and more people have been coming into use its free services during the recession.


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