By JON GASKELL
Capital News Service
LANSING — Pam Christensen has heard about the demise of libraries for years. The 26-year director of the Peter White Public Library in Marquette said such reports were always greatly exaggerated.
“I remember a conference decades ago when the talk was, ‘Oh, computers will be the end of libraries,” said Christensen. “We’re actually doing better now than then.”
Marquette’s public library, like hundreds across the state, has seen an increase in the number of visitors and the amount of material circulated. Despite funding cuts and technology advances that threatened their existence, libraries remain indispensable to many communities.
According to the Michigan Library Association, library visits increased from 52 to 57 million between 2009 and 2010. Circulation numbers also improved, rising from 79 million to 85 million from the state’s 390 public libraries.
Despite the increase in use, libraries face significant cuts in funding.
Association Director Gretchen Couraud cited a loss of support from state aid, property taxes and criminal fines.
According to Couraud, state aid has plunged 64 percent over the past 11 years, from a high of $15 million in 2001 to $5.4 million now.
Libraries that rely on local taxes have been hit hard by the recession. As local property values have fallen, revenue from millages has dropped as well, she said.
Because of the decrease in both state aid and local tax collections, libraries depend more heavily on fines from criminal violations and civil infractions that are legally earmarked to support libraries.
In 2010, Michigan libraries received $27.6 million in criminal fines, a number that has steadily declined since a high of $31.2 million in 2004, according to the Department of Education.
Couraud attributed the drop to local governments adopting ordinances that divert such fines towards police and prosecutors rather than libraries.
Tom Genson, director of the Herrick District Library in Holland, said loss of revenue forced his library to make sacrifices.
“We had to eliminate five positions and cut back our hours by six during the week and three more on Sunday,” Genson said. “Even with the fewer hours, the number of people using the library has held.”
Couraud said the recent shortfalls pale in comparison to what would happen if a proposed elimination of the personal property tax were to become law because it serves as an important source of local funding for libraries.
“If the personal property tax is eliminated and the state does not reimburse the lost revenue, Michigan libraries would lose $30 million annually
“That would mean cuts in programs, cuts in hours, cuts in staff, closed branches and closed libraries.”
Meanwhile, libraries are learning to do more with less, librarians said.
Ishwar Laxminarayan, director of the Jackson District Library, said traffic and circulation numbers are the highest in 23 years and the numbers are driven by a “fundamental shift” in the function libraries now serve.
“We used to just be the warehouses of books,” Laxminarayan said. “Now we give people access to and training in technology they may not be able to afford.
“We had an old man sent to us by Best Buy to help him learn how to use his tablet,” Laxminarayan said. “One of the most popular classes we have is how to turn the thing on.”
Programs like that, Laxminarayan said, have made the library important to local residents. When the library was having trouble covering operating costs in 2008, voters passed an increase in the millage rate.
“When we came to the community and asked for the millage, they stepped up. It shows the trust and value the community places in us,” Laxminarayan said.
As a result of the recession, libraries have become increasingly important to people who don’t have access to computers or an Internet connection.
Marquette’s Christensen said, “We have stepped into this role as part of the social safety net. For a lot of people, this is the only way to find a job or do taxes or get access to state services.
“Years ago we thought the digital divide between people who had access to technology and those who didn’t was closing,” Christensen said. “Now with the recession, that gap is opening up again.”
And Holland’s Genson said the recession has brought many job seekers into his library during the past five years.
“If it comes down to food or medical care versus Internet, a lot of people are going to get rid of their service,” Genson said, “but they still need access to find a job or get the help they need.”
By JON GASKELL