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Branch Library Committee Aims to Send a Message To Township Government

Becky Melvin

More than 500 registered voters in the Township have signed a petition seeking to establish a permanent branch of the Princeton Public Library at the Princeton Shopping Center.

The number of signatures is half the amount needed to file a petition with the Township Committee to have the question considered on November's election ballot.

A petition of voters has to have the support of 995 registered voters, or 10 percent of the total number of registered voters in Princeton Township at the last general election, according to the Mercer County Clerk's Office.

A citizens' group called the Branch Library Committee, which is collecting the signatures, intends to get the remaining number needed by early September. That timing meets a legal deadline of 60 days prior to the election.

"We think that we can make it," said Pat Haneline, a founding member of the committee. "We have more than 700 signatures, of which 500 have been verified."

"There are many petitions still out, and we have a group that is going to make a final drive, going around neighborhoods and standing outside of the library and McCaffrey's," Ms. Haneline, of Cameron Court, said.

Even if the required number of signatures is met, however, there's no guarantee the issue will go to ballot. Under New Jersey statute, Township Committee isn't required to have a referendum based on a petition of voters.

"We think we should have a referendum," said David Eden, another originator of the five-member Branch Library Committee. "But the law doesn't allow us to force it."

The library moved to the shopping center on a temporary basis when its building on the corner of Witherspoon and Wiggins streets in the Borough was razed in 2001, making way for a replacement building to be constructed.

Though the temporary location is crowded and makeshift in many ways, it has been unexpectedly popular. In fact, the number of patrons passing through the doors of the library has climbed 25 percent since the move. The number of patrons checking out books and other materials has been rising five percent to six percent a year, in line with the trend even before the move, according to the director of the library, Leslie Burger.

Many people are attracted to the convenience of the location. At the shopping center, a trip to the library can be combined with errands and shopping. Also parking is more abundant and less stressful than downtown Princeton, and free as well. A garage adjacent to the new library will set aside 85 spaces for library patrons.

Even so, the idea of keeping the temporary location up and running after the new $18 million building is ready has met with resistance from the Princetons. The cost hasn't been budgeted and a second location might compete with the new, three-story library.

Not every library patron supports a branch at the shopping center. Bill Litchman of Saint Clair Court said, "It's very inconvenient for us. We live on the other side of town."

Carrying four books under his arm as he walked from the library to his car in the shopping center parking lot, Mr. Litchman said he wouldn't be in favor of establishing a branch library "if it detracted from the other library."

Marie Griffith of Linden Lane, who was reading books to her children while sitting on the blue floor cushions of the library's children's section, said that even though the library at the shopping center is slightly closer to her home and easier for her family to use, she generally isn't in favor of a branch library. She feels it would divide resources and take away from the sense of one community space. "I'm sympathetic to the parking concerns, however," she said.

For now the Branch Library Committee is focused on collecting signatures and intent on "sending a clear message that this is a priority for the community," Mr. Eden said.

The Branch Library Committee expects that at a minimum an independent committee should examine the question and investigate things like how much it would cost. Its position is that an estimate of $1.3 million to run a branch library is higher than the actual cost.

A year ago, library officials considered the proposal of a branch library at the shopping center and determined that it may be a possibility in the future, but wasn't feasible now. The library's estimate was based on operating a branch in the same space that the library currently occupies, but with less staff and fewer hours. Rent would be about $20,000 a month.

But a branch library could be much smaller in scope, using about one-third to one-half of the space now used, said Ms. Haneline, who has lived in Princeton for 10 years and has been involved in various community causes including a current role as co-chair of the Stonybrook-Millstone Watershed Association's annual gala.

She doesn't think that Township Committee will necessarily consider a referendum even if the signatures are collected, but she still holds out hope that library space now at the shopping center will remain open even through next March and April when the relocation to the new building is scheduled to occur.

"An interim branch library is not out of the question," she said. "There has been no final decision. We should have an interim branch library until the matter is resolved."

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