TWO HARBORS — As summer reading programs reach full swing at libraries across the state, libraries themselves are weighing budget cuts and service reductions. And libraries in rural areas do what they can with their already smaller budgets to serve communities that might have limited options for information, entertainment and gathering places.
“Historically, more so in the past, there was a tendency to look at libraries as something more vulnerable,” said Jim Weikum, executive director of the Arrowhead Library System, which coordinates library services for 29 libraries in northeastern Minnesota. “Personally, I think it had something to do with gender issues — most librarians were women, and they didn’t get the respect. That’s changed substantially in the last 20 years.”
Now, Weikum says, libraries are a point of pride and identity for smaller towns. “It’s one of the last vestiges of community identity,” Weikum said, “especially if the community no longer has a school.”
Certain challenges that all libraries face tend to have a larger impact on the operations of smaller libraries. When looking at library budgets, Weikum said, city councils might find it “easier” to cut a book budget “because they’re not impacting hours of service or people.” But those funds, once cut, are difficult to get back.
“Some libraries are operating on materials budgets that are the same as they were 10 to 12 years ago,” Weikum said.
No closures imminent in Arrowhead Library System
State cuts to local government aid bite into library budgets and can bring up the question of whether to keep supporting a library, Weikum said, although he stressed there were no closures imminent in the Arrowhead Library System.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s unallotments may also pose a challenge, said Susan Heskin, director of the Two Harbors Public Library. “In the past, we’ve been expected to cut budgets based on problems in funding,” Heskin said. “With the unallotment … we may be asked to cut more.”
As more people are affected by the tough economy, some libraries see an increase in usage as people look for inexpensive entertainment (books and DVDs) or research jobs. And when a small town is hit with layoffs in the businesses there, more residents come in to take advantage of what libraries can offer.
“We’ve definitely seen a large increase,” Heskin said. “I’ve noticed people coming in who have gone back to school and they’re doing research, or other distance learning, and we do test proctoring for correspondence schools. People just don’t have the money anymore.”
Library directors across the system said that while they have faced budget difficulties, community support has been a major factor in hanging on — and in some cases, growing.
In Calumet, ‘our numbers are up’
There’s not much left in Calumet, said Melanie LeFebvre, director of the library in the town of 383. “We just lost our car dealership,” she said. “Because of that, everyone comes here during the day. Our numbers are up. In fact, I’ve got a lot of people pushing me to be open on Fridays and Saturdays, and I might add some hours on Saturdays in the fall.”
JoAnn Mikulich is the director of the Coleraine library. “We just won a five-star library award,” she said, which goes to libraries that show growth in program attendance, circulation, and Internet use on its public computers. “With cuts and everything, city councils do look at libraries, but we’re not running into a whole lot of problems.”
The library in Keewatin is also a gathering place, said Nancy Provencher, the director there. “We’ve always had a good patronage and a strong weekly average,” she said. “Ever since the layoffs at Kee-Tac, we’ve seen even more people come in. We’ve averaged 250 to 300 people coming in weekly over the past six months.”
That’s a role Weikum says libraries have always played. “People see libraries as a community place, as a location where they can gather. There aren’t a lot of meeting spots, and the library can provide that. Programming isn’t only for kids, either, and people can gather at forums.”
‘Very much a gathering spot’
It’s not just the building, either. Weikum said that when the bookmobile comes to an area, it becomes a social event. “It’s very much a gathering spot, even in terms to the bookmobile.”
Small towns often operate on the edge of success or failure, and some libraries have faced cuts in the past that make current cuts unnecessary or clearly impossible. “We had slashed our hours about five years ago” during a budget crunch, Mikulich said, which is one reason hours and services aren’t now being reduced at the Coleraine library.
“One of my favorite ways to refer to a library is ‘the people’s university,'” Weikum said. “Whether they’re pursuing formal education, or lifelong learning, entertainment through movies or music or culture — the library provides it all.”
“It would be nice if we had a bigger place to be,” said Provencher at the Keewatin library. “We’re in the old liquor store, and half of the building is the post office and half is the library. People think we’re so small here, but then they come in and see what we have and they’re surprised at how much there is.”
The Two Harbors library has planned a landscaping project for its entryway and Heskin said that while fundraising for it can be challenging during a tough economy, donations have been steady.
“We hope people see the library as a resource when their economic situation is changing,” she said.
Catherine Conlan, of Two Harbors, writes about northeastern Minnesota.