BY BOB HOLT
As the economic crunch continues, libraries continue to take some of the biggest budget hits. Camden is preparing to permanently shut its library system by the end of the year, potentially leaving residents of New Jersey's most impoverished city among the few in the United States unable to borrow a library book free.
At an emotional but sparsely attended meeting of the library board Thursday, its president, Martin McKernan, said the city's three libraries cannot stay open past Dec. 31 because of severe budget cuts by Mayor Dana L. Redd.
The city is faced with a 70-percent cut in funding. The library board says not even one branch could operate with the level of city funding that they have. So they plan to permanently close all three.
Redd is facing a $28 million projected budget deficit. She is planning deep cuts in all departments, and she told McKernan last month that she would slash funding to the 105-year-old library system by about two-thirds.
Because not even one of the three libraries could stay open in 2011 on such limited support, all 21 employees would be laid off, McKernan said.
There is still hope for library users and employees. City Council must approve the mayor's fiscal year 2011 budget, which contains the reduced library funding, which will be introduced Tuesday.
Kyw.cbslocal.com reports that the decision to close the libraries may not be final. The city is looking into possibly joining the county library system, and there's a question whether the voters will decide the libraries' fate because voters, more than 100 years ago created the system, so the question to close the system may also have to be put before the voters.
"The citizens are first, and the libraries are on the top of the list as we struggle through our budget," Redd said to philly.com.
As people look for ways to weather the tough economic storm, many have found relief at their local library.
"What the down economy is doing is reminding people that these libraries are there for them," Paul LeClerc, president of the New York Public Library said to myfoxny.com. "Lots of folks have been going around, I think naively in the past, saying 'do we still need libraries? ' Libraries are as essential, if not more essential, now than they have been in the last fifty years."
Senior librarian Robert Sorrentino told the Courier Post he's circulating a petition in hopes of generating enough support — financial or political — to keep the system running.
"Let's face it: The library, especially in a place like Camden, is more than just a place to read," he said.
McKernan says the library system, which opened in 1904, is preparing to donate, sell or destroy its collections, including 187,000 books, historical documents, artifacts, and electronic equipment. He says keeping materials in shuttered buildings is a fire hazard, officials said, and would make them vulnerable to vandalism and vermin.
A bigger hazard might be the city closing all of its libraries.