Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 22
 
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
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Library Attributes Drop in Patronage to Parking Costs

Linda Arntzenius

If you build it they will come … but not, apparently if they have to pay for parking.

The removal of a municipal subsidy that, prior to February 1 this year, allowed patrons of the Princeton Public Library to use the Borough-owned Spring Street parking garage for up to two hours for free, was the topic of a report presented by Library Director Leslie Burger to members of the library's Board of Trustees last Tuesday, May 22.

Ms. Burger's report showed a steady decline in the number of patrons visiting the library since the parking subsidy was removed.

The decline stands in sharp contrast to the steady increase in use of the state-of-the-art facility from its opening three years ago until January of this year, when it was announced that the subsidy would be withdrawn and free parking reduced to one half-hour, just enough time for patrons to return or pick up books but not enough for them to linger, browse, and spend dollars in DVD rentals and in the library store.

While the door count for this January was 69,323 as compared to 66,711 in 2006, an increase of 4 percent, the door count for February was down 7 percent, with 58,522 in 2007 as opposed to 62,997 in 2006. In March, the number continued to decline, with a count of some 72,000, down 8 percent from 2006. The decline in April was even more marked, down 13 percent as compared to April 2006.

Ms. Burger's report included graphs that presented a dramatic picture of the relationship between the decline in the number of patrons and the discontinued parking subsidy.

The board discussed the altered experience for many library visitors. "People are coming in for 28 minutes; they are not browsing and buying in the library store or the library book sale and, I suspect, sales in the café are down, too," said Ms. Burger, adding that she feared a visit to the library would be only for those willing to pay for it.

As a corollary to the door count decline there has been a marked increase in the number of patrons calling the library with requests to hold titles. Hold items for checkout increased by 21 percent from February 2006 to February 2007. It seems that more library patrons are calling ahead so that they can make a quick stop at the library, taking advantage of the 30 minutes of free parking at the Spring Street garage.

"I'd like to go back to the old system," said board member and Township resident Grayson Barber. "I believe that the Township should pay for parking for Township residents who have to travel a distance to take advantage of this resource," she said.

The old system of up to two hours of free parking at the Spring Street garage for patrons who had their parking card stamped by library staff at the check-out desk was paid for by a subsidy from the Princeton municipalities.

The free parking encouraged library patrons to spend time in the library, reading, browsing, and spending dollars in the library store and on the shelves of books for sale through the Friends of the Library, as well as in the café.

Ms. Burger expressed concern about the decrease in use, which is directly related, she believes, to the parking situation. "Less visitors, means less DVD rentals, less revenue," she said, citing a chart of door count numbers showing months of upward trends, followed by months of decline.

The Board heard that since January the library store, whose proceeds benefit the library, has seen an almost 24 percent decline in revenues. It was also noted that there had been a decline in the sale of books for the month of April, down by 17.3 percent compared with the same month last year.

Ms. Burger, who is President of the American Library Association, said that she has made a point of observing how other libraries handle parking issues, comparing procedures such as having a card stamped by library staff to others such as that seen on a recent visit to Yonkers, where library patrons were issued parking cards with monetary value assigned to them. Such cards, she said, would entail the library finding funds for a subsidy, which, according to Ms. Burger, is not in a position to do, given its current budget.

The impact of the removal of the two-hour free parking is prompting the board to think of ways to approach Princeton Borough Council and Princeton Township Committee to broach the question of reinstating the parking subsidy, which is thought to have had a greater impact on library patrons living in the Township than those living in the Borough. While that would seem to be a fair assumption, there are no figures confirming that Township residents made more use of the free parking than Borough residents, and members of the board pointed out that it would be unwise to assume that there were no Borough residents making use of the free parking.

The cost of the subsidy to the municipalities in 2006 was $101,000, of which Princeton Borough covered approximately 33 percent and Princeton Township approximately 66 percent, a proportion determined by respective ratables.

New Board President Katherine McGavern said that it was her objective to find a solution to the problem in the coming year.

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