Libraries are ‘one of the necessities of life'

I have been the director at the Exeter Community Library for four years, but have been employed there for almost 12. My parents, unlike some other lucky kids’ parents, told me when I was in 11th grade (which feels like forever ago), that I had to get a job. I remember pleading with my mom – but the subject never went away, so I started searching.

It must have been my lucky day when a few weeks later, the librarian from the Exeter Community Library sat at a table during my lunch period handing out information and library card applications to students who were interested. I remember leaning over to a friend, saying, “Exeter has a public library?” And from that moment on, I knew it was my mission to work there. I knew NOTHING about the place, not its location, its size, what their circulation was like, and certainly nothing about the staff or if they were even hiring. BUT, I was a girl on a mission – whose parents were throwing her out into the workforce. I was determined to get a job at a place that didn’t sell hamburgers, French fries or ice cream, and where hopefully, I wouldn’t have to use a cash register. Did I mention I was (and still am) a book lover? I found their address and mailed in my resume. My fingers were crossed.

Unfortunately, not much later, I got my very first rejection letter. It was even hand-written.

“Oh well”, I said. And so I filled out an application at a local fast food joint – my last resort, and went away for Memorial Day vacation. I figured I’d worry about a job when I got back.

Luck isn’t always on my side, but it was after that weekend. I had mail later that week in the same gorgeous calligraphy handwriting that the rejection letter came from. I couldn’t tear it open fast enough. I was getting the chance to interview for a library page position, and it was signed “Kim Stahler” – a name I will never forget – as she paved my way to librarianship.

By June 18th, 2001, I was the Exeter Community Library’s newest employee. Adding to their staff of four, I was lucky number five. Not too long ago I came across this fantastic library quote from Marie de Sevigne (SAY-veen-yay), and it reminded me of how I felt the first time I walked into the library for my interview with Ms. Stahler. “When I step into this library, I cannot understand why I ever step out of it.”

And that was when my dream of becoming a librarian began. Before stepping foot in that library, I never knew you even needed to go to college, let alone have a master’s degree, to be a librarian. So I applied at Kutztown University, where they had a library science program, and was accepted by Halloween of my senior year. I finally felt like I knew what I wanted to do with my life – I just needed to figure out how to get there.

So I kept working – and every time there was the chance for more hours, I took it. Slowly but surely, I started to be promoted. I went from the library page to a library assistant, learning how to work the circulation desk and checking patrons in and out; I went from a part-time employee to a full-time employee within four years, and once full-time, I started doing much more at the library. I got my own space in our tiny little office so I could begin ordering the music CD’s (we had one office about the size of your average child’s bedroom for about 5 people to share, plus it doubled as our lunch room), and I remember thinking – “This. Is. Awesome.”

Our tiny little library (which was in 1,000 square feet in the bottom of a barn if I hadn’t mentioned that) was growing – and fast. We had outgrown our space in the barn graciously given to us by Exeter Township almost as soon as we had moved in, and were looking to build. The library director at that time was swamped with capital campaign meetings and building meetings with architects and I was just on the sidelines – wishing I could be more involved, but thankful that I was not that important - not yet!

Our first full year of library service in the barn was the year 2000 – exactly one year before I arrived. The circulation of items for that year was 84,494 (this is the number of items that our patrons check out)! By 2004, when we realized we needed a bigger building (and fast) – our circulation had been increasing by leaps and bounds each year – but had reached 212,380. It was astounding to us how popular we were. We felt like we would never get our new building after all the different hoops we had to jump through for different reasons, but finally, our absolutely stunning 15,000 square foot, brand new library opened on November 6, 2006. Things were always so exciting and fun at work that I knew for sure a librarian was who I was inside, Exeter Library was where I wanted to be, and Kutztown University was calling my name again – so I applied to their grad school to complete a master’s degree in library science, and began in 2007, working full-time and attending classes for two years. During my time attending classes, the opportunity arose for promotion within the library for me twice. I couldn’t believe that I had laid out a plan, and it was all finally coming together! Towards the end of the summer of 2007, the library was in search of a new director. I jumped at the chance, putting in my resume, interviewing twice with our board of directors, only to receive what will now be known as my “second” rejection letter – which this time was actually a phone call. I remember hanging up the phone and crying behind the director’s desk.

It was a rough year when they hired the new director. But that was when I got my promotion to assistant director, and I knew at that point, that someday I’d get the title. But I had to wait for my time, and in the words of my grandmother “patience is a virtue.”

I did get the chance to interview for the “big job” again, and it was only about a year later, in late 2008. Again, I interviewed twice, took all the advice I could get from library colleagues and friends, and just waited. I got the good news this time in early January 2009. The job was mine. It was finally mine! My dream came true. I waited, I watched, I learned, I listened, and eight years later – my dream came true. The Exeter Community Library was now “MY library”. I couldn’t have been more ecstatic.

Business was booming, as usual, too. 2009 was our best year for circulation ever – with 343,505 items getting checked out of our library that year. We were the busiest library in Berks County with 14 employees and over 40 volunteers. But then the budget crunch started. Exeter Township, our biggest provider of local financial effort, was cutting our funding by $100,000. The circulation slowly began to drop, as more and more people were using the library for the programs and free Internet we were offering, and we began to see a rise in the number of people using Kindles, iPads, and Nooks for reading than borrowing “real” books. It began to take its toll.

But this is not to say that public libraries are failing. We just need to keep up with the technological trends as best we can. In 2011, the Reading Public Library introduced e-books for all Berks library patrons to borrow for FREE. This is a very expensive service (on the library’s behalf) but costs the patron nothing. It’s part of keeping up with the growing trend of e-books – which is extremely difficult, because some of the nation’s largest publishers refuse to sell e-books to libraries, while other publishers increase the price libraries must pay for e-books, and others limit the number of times each e-book can be loaned to a patron. This makes it difficult for libraries to efficiently keep up with the e-book trend.

But with decreased budgets, come decreased services. 57% of libraries in 2012 reported flat or decreased budgets. We were one of them – and now, in 2013 – we are working on a severely decreased budget. Our reserves we had back in 2009 are almost depleted, and we had to make many cuts to be able to keep our doors open. We were forced to lay off two employees, and when a third left for another job, we were unable to replace her. We are no longer open on Mondays, and we cut our collection budget from $78,500 per year (this is just for adult and children’s books, music, audio, and DVDs) to $48,600 – almost $30,000 less. The patrons are feeling it and so is our staff. Our shelves that are supposed to be filled with NEW books are virtually bare at all times. As soon as I put new books out, they get checked out in a nanosecond!

The American Library Association claims that 1 in 3 Americans ages 14-77 use public libraries for free Internet access. We have 20 adult patron computers, and half of them are always in use, all day long. But I also strongly believe that these same statistics can be used for people who are using the library for materials, as well – there are more than 121,000 libraries in the United States, and in 2011, 36 million Americans increased their library usage – with 69% of Americans currently using libraries on a regular basis. The American Library Association says that Americans are relying on libraries’ free services more than ever, even now that the economy is recovering – yet many libraries are facing major budget cuts.

I know that my family (and extended family, too) rely heavily on my library. I was directed to a site recently by the President of our Friends group that calculates an estimate of what the library is saving you each year. I knew that by using the library instead of Redbox or Netflix, buying hardcover books or purchasing Nook Books, having magazine subscriptions, etc. that we were saving money, but I never realized that it would be over $650 per month!

So keep this quote from Henry Ward Beecher in mind – “A library is not a luxury but one of the necessities of life.” I certainly do.