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Betsy Brooks (left) and Eva Jankowska of the Clinton-Essex-Franklin Library System
Betsy Brooks (left) and Eva Jankowska of the Clinton-Essex-Franklin Library System

North Country libraries: balancing services, budgets

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Libraries aren't just quiet places filled with books. In the North Country, libraries serve as social hubs and community centers. These days, they're scrambling to keep pace with the changing ways that we use information and technology.

But decreases in funding are making it harder for rural libraries to juggle their many missions. Sarah Harris has our story.

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A note posted on the Plattsburgh Public Library desk, thanking the public for their support

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Sarah Harris
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It’s Thursday morning at the Plattsburgh Public Library. People are using computers, lounging around in stuffed chairs, and browsing between shelves. Susan Tetrault is crouched in the craft book section. She tells me what she's looking for.

"Craft books on driftwood. I live near Lake Champlain so I’m lookin to find something that’ll help me with my pieces of wood that I have."

"What are you going to make?" I ask.

"I don’t know," she says with a laugh. "That’s why I need the book."

Across the way, Nicole LaFountain is working intently at the computer.

"I like looking up jobs and housing. And I like taking my son here, so. It’s good for him for learning and experiences," LaFountain said. 

Fourteen miles north, the Chazy Public Library is busy too. They’ve just moved into a beautiful new stone building right on the river. Librarian Frances Fairchild shows me around.

"There’s room for more books, room for people to move around and interact with each other," she says excitedly.  

In the North Country, libraries are more than just books. They’re cultural centers, community gathering places, even job centers. People’s lives change here. Sharon Mayel has come for her weekly adult literacy class.  

“She’s helpin' me to read and write because I quit when I was 16 years old," Sharon says of her tutor, Marie Daboulos, a volunteer with Literacy of Clinton County. 

"It’s a wonderful place to meet and it happens to be close to sharon’s home," Daboulos said.

Mayel says she’s glad that Chazy’s library has found a new home.

"It’s a lot roomier than the other place. We had to go upstairs, and then it was so cold. And I says well I won’t have too far to walk. So that’s why I come Wednesdays and Thursdays," she said.

 And the libraries are full of surprises, says Mooers Free librarian Jacqueline Madison.

"We have a Wii game. I don’t think that other libraries have a Wii game!" 

She says more and more people are coming to the library to use the computers and the library’s free wifi.

 Eva Jankowska, director of the Clinton-Essex-Franklin library system, agrees.

"Libraries are expected to have a major role in helping people learn computers. Recently we’ve played a major role in helping people find jobs," Jankowska explained.

One of the biggest jobs in the new economy is helping rural families gain access not just to computers but to the internet. Betsy Brooks is the system’s automation librarian.

"I do think there’s a big digital divide and its partly because the population has less ability to get broadband at their homes," Brooks said. "We do have low income areas, very rural areas and we have an aging population so we do have people who need help with using computers. And the libraries are doing what we can."

But Eva Janknowska says the question long-term is whether funding will be available for libraries trying to balance so many missions.  

"Libraries are loved. But one of the mottos we have for funding is that you cannot live on love alone! We really need financial help."

The Clinton-Essex-Franklin library system stopped offering its bookmobile service at the beginning of this year. They just didn’t have the money. Libraries receive state funding, grants, and money from either their munipality or local school district. Governor Cuomo’s new budget kept library funding flat with last year at 79 million dollars. According to the New York Library Association, that’s 22 % below 2008 funding levels. And it’s approximately the same amount of funding that libraries received in 1994.

Jankowska says those questions will continue to surface as local governments work to avoid property tax hikes.

"We don’t know what’s going to happen with the new budget and how the 2% cap is going to work. If the municipalities have to choose between the police, fire, or library, the choices are hard to make," she said.

But last year year, people in the North Country stood by their libraries when they were threatened with budget cuts and natural disasters. 

After the wells memorial library in Upper Jay flooded during Tropical Storm Irene in August, people turned out in droves to help clean up, donate books and even write checks. The library reopened last weekend.

In December a $150,000 gap in the Plattsburgh Public Library’s budget meant that it might have to lay off employees and cut services.

But the Plattsburgh city council stepped in with $60,000 the library desperately needed and nobody lost their jobs. Stan Ransom is director of Plattsburgh’s library.

"The public got together and told the board and the city that they wanted to support the library no matter what it took. They use it, it saves them money, they want their children to be readers, and so this was terribly important to the community of Plattsburgh," Ransom said. "And so because of that particular meeting – we had a real support flooding in from the public that uses our library."

Going forward, libraries face some challenges—keeping their coffers full and reinventing their role as demand for services changes. But automation librarian Betsy Brooks says they’re up to it.

"Yes we have libraries that struggle," Brooks said, "but they’re always places where there’s great hope for transformation—transformation in life."

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