One Day in the Life of Alabama Public Libraries

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It was just a snapshot. But it provided a window into a day in the life of an Alabama public library. That glimpse was enough to help convince county officials to reverse the decision to zero fund the library for 2014 and restore full funding.

This is not to say the Lawrence County Public Library is completely out of woods, since it awaits another crucial budget decision. The library was among the public libraries across the state taking part in "Snapshot Day: One Day in the Life of Alabama Public Libraries," on Sept. 25, 2013. A project of the Alabama Public Library Service, its goal was to show how important public libraries and library systems are to the state of Alabama - and, by doing so, to prod its community into thinking about what life would be like without the vital services provided by libraries. At the time of the project, Rex Bain had recently been hired as interim director of the library, which serves a population of just under 32,000. The library, which receives a portion of its funding from the county, was in danger of receiving zero funding as the result of the closing of the area’s largest employer, International Paper. “Try coming in as the interim director and finding out you no longer have money coming in,” he said.

The county appropriates roughly $32,000 annually – the library also receives $40,000 in funding from the city of Moulton and around $25,000 from the state of Alabama. “That’s basically the foundation of my budget,” Bain said. “And the county only goes toward personnel expenses.” Losing the county’s portion would also impact its state funding. Bain is the only full-time person – the rest of his staff consists of four part-time employees. The library is open 41.5 hours per week. If the $32,000 were lost, the library would be forced to cut hours. But the state, because of the library’s service population, requires the library to be open 40 hours per week to be eligible for state aid.

Fortunately for Bain’s library and its population, the snapshot results, which included data on visiting patrons and a comment section, and a media campaign helped rescue the funding for the 2014 fiscal year, which began in October. “The statistics is what helped us,” Bain said. The library, Bain said, was armed with comment cards and material provided by the Alabama Public Library Service. On that day, 107 people entered the library and filled out around 50 comment cards. In addition, the library compiled data onto a spreadsheet that provided a picture of a typical day.

The library reached out to local press, which resulted in television stations calling the library and showing up in less than 12 hours. The efforts bore fruit, with the county restoring full funding to the library. “The snapshot day was really a catalyst as far as helping provide good reliable information on a typical day in the library,” he said.

Housed in a building containing less than 5,000 square feet, the library is located in the largest town in the county, which only has approximately 3,500 residents, even though the population service area of the library is roughly 32,000. “But because we’re a rural county, we have a large population that comes in strictly for computer and Internet access. Once you get out of the larger towns, you don’t have high-speed Internet access,” Bain said. One might be able to access mobile broadband outside of the library, but the service is not as reliable in the rural areas. “So anyone who needs to come in and do job searches, things like that, this is where they come,” Bain said. “Because this is the only place that has high-speed Internet that’s really accessible to everyone.”

Bain said the closing of International Paper, which employed more than 1,000 people, had ramifications for library patrons. “We saw an influx of people coming in to do job searches, because once you move out of the town, you’re just kind of on your own. You can’t get very reliable high-speed Internet access,” he said.

Although Snapshot Day proved effective in mobilizing public opinion last fiscal year, the library is not out of the woods yet. Two weeks ago, the county predicted a $700,000 shortfall in the budget. “So, we do not know how this is going to impact us,” Bain said.

Once again, the prospect of scaling back hours is looming on the horizon, endangering state funding. A waiver is possible, he said. However, he added, “If that was the new base, then those waivers would not be indefinite.”