Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 6
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
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Library Weathers Economic Downturn, Seeks to Balance Electronics and Print

Ellen Gilbert

“It’s lovely to be here just to report and not actually be asking you for anything,” observed Princeton Public Library Executive Director Leslie Burger as she began her annual report to Township Committee at their Monday evening meeting.

“Like all of you, we’ve kind of coped with the continuing results of the economic downturn,” Ms. Burger said. “For us that means two things. First of all, we’re very busy. As more people in the community found themselves newly unemployed they found their way to the library to seek assistance.” This assistance, she said, included help with preparing resumes, and doing background research on particular companies. Human resources people continue to come in on a regular basis to augment what librarians can do and, she said, a number of people have reported that because of these sessions they were able to get interviews.

A second outcome of the economic downturn, noted the former American Library Association (ALA) president, is dealing with fewer resources on a day-to-day basis. “We’ve been very careful managers of our budget for the last few years,” she observed. “When a vacancy occurred, we asked ourselves, do we need this position? Do we still need the same skill set? Do we need to hire right away?” This deliberation about how and if to fill vacancies as they come along has helped the library “weather the downturn,” keep lay-offs at bay, and maintain services, including the 72-hour-a-week schedule to which the community is accustomed. Shortfalls included reductions in state support that are unlikely to be restored this year.

The library’s centennial anniversary, which was marked by an event-filled weekend in October was, Ms. Burger said, “a wonderful moment to celebrate how this community has supported and loved its library for the last hundred years.” Acknowledging that tax-payer dollars “are not unlimited,” she described setting a $10 million goal for the library’s endowment in conjunction with the event. “I’m happy to report that we did it, and many of you played a role in that.”

“I would like to tell you that we have it all; but we don’t,” she said of the $10 million. She reported that it should be coming in over the next five years, and will be invested in perpetuity, with income supporting library programs and growth.

A new book return bin at the Dinky station, and an online library-by-mail program were also among the year’s highlights. Assuming control over the Springboard after school tutoring program has given the library the ability to track the activities of this grant-funded program that offers skill reviews and helps youngsters with their homework. The recent Environmental Film Festival brought over 3,500 to the library, and the announcement of a new pass that gives library card holders access to Princeton University Libraries generated 68 requests within minutes of being announced that morning.

In addition to their “spectacular volunteer effort” the Friends of the Library contribute some $300,000 a year to the library for the purchase of new materials, and ALA commended the remarkable success of the Friends’ book sales this year.

“The challenge right now is figuring out the right balance between electronics and print materials,” Ms. Burger commented, turning to current and future library concerns. She explained that publishers don’t want to sell electronic versions of a work to libraries the way that they sell a book that can be circulated among many people. This is “creating some interesting challenges for us,” she said, citing the importance of working with publishers to help them better understand library needs. In the meantime, downloadable music, audio books, ebooks, and more are available at the library. “Who knows where it’s going to end up?” Ms. Burger mused. “It’s too soon to tell. The interesting thing is that even as people are using more electronic devices, library use is up.” A 2010 strategic plan that will serve this “very technology-literate community” has been completed, she reported, noting that the library now serves four generations of users representing a wide range of technological sophistication.

Ms. Burger ended her report by tossing out some “staggering statistics.” The library, which remained open for 349 days last year, had 788,000 visitors (an average of 2,300 a day), and currently has 32,000 cardholders (including some non-residents). The Circulation Desk checked out some 513,000 items, and an additional 5,000 items (a 50 percent increase over the previous year) were downloaded by patrons. The library-by-mail program increased by 222 percent, and 4,268 hours of volunteer work were clocked. A 27 percent increase in the use of the Springboard program probably reflects a community that is less able to hire tutors for students who need help.

Citing the remarkable increase in the number of library programs and numbers of people attending, Ms. Burger suggested that “If you look at the amount of money we invest in the library and the number of people using it, it’s a wonderful return on your investment.”

During the Comments portion of the meeting, Chip Crider, who described himself as a Borough resident with a business in the Township (“I get the best of both”), talked about watching “leaders of the both the Borough and the Township act surprised” at last week’s joint meeting on the University’s proposed Arts and Transit neighborhood.

“What were they surprised at?” he asked. “That Shirley [Tilghman, President of the University] came out slugging? That a decision had to be made after five years?” Mr. Crider asked Township Committee for a straw vote on how it will proceed at this point.

“I do believe that this is salvageable,” responded Mayor Chad Goerner. “We do support this project moving forward.” Mr. Goerner explained, however, that the project could not move forward without the approval of zoning changes, nor “if our colleagues on Borough Council don’t come on board.” Saying that he hoped “to continue a dialogue with the Borough and the University over the next 60 days,” Mr. Goerner thanked Mr. Crider for his comments.

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