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Franklin fights for certification of library amid budget cuts

By Jose Martinez
Globe Corespondent / February 19, 2012
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The Franklin public library, the oldest public lending library in the country, has been decertified by the state, leaving local officials scrambling to prove their commitment to preserving services at the library started with a passel of books donated by Ben Franklin himself.

The city cut the budget for its library, officially called the Ray Memorial Library, by nearly a third for 2012.

But town officials say the drop in funding is more a reflection of efficiency than a dropoff in support for the institution that dates back to the late 1700s.

The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, which voted earlier this month to cut off Franklin both from its grants and from the statewide lending services of 341 certified libraries, is unconvinced.

“Franklin would tell us - indeed, they did tell us - that they cut a quarter-million dollars from the budget and that didn’t impact services or hours,’’ said library commissioner George Comeau. “I have a hard time thinking that is possible.’’

Comeau said last week that commissioners were planning to visit the library yesterday to examine the services in Franklin.

Although the commissioners granted 121 waivers to other communities facing economic woes, Franklin and Millville, which cut its library budget by 95 percent and now relies on volunteers to be open just six hours a week, were denied waivers to dissuade other towns from thinking they could balance their budgets on the backs of public libraries, Comeau said. Cutting the Franklin library budget from $705,000 last year to just $485,000 this year seemed predatory, Comeau said.

Library commissioners interpreted the cut as a “disproportionate drop’’ in view of the much smaller cuts made to other departments in Franklin. The difference in funding between 2011 and 2012 is close to 31 percent.

Franklin is appealing the decision. Town Administrator Jeffrey Nutting said last week that he hopes the visit by the commissioners will persuade them to restore the library’s certification as early as March 1, when the Board of Library Commissioners meets again in Boston.

Nutting said he understands the state’s reluctance to accept that the library has not cut back services despite being funded at little more than half the state standard of $917,000 for a community its size. He acknowledged that Franklin may never again be able to reach that funding level. However, he defended the budget cuts as being “well thought out.’’

The Franklin library consolidated two staffed checkout desks into one, added several self-service checkout stations, and cut the part-time staff by the equivalent of 3.5 full-time positions, Nutting said. In the process, the library avoided cutting hours or programs. Town officials are adding $15,000 to the book-buying budget and considering spending $100,000 to upgrade the library’s computers.

“This town stands behind the library,’’ Nutting said. “If we can provide better and more services for less money, we owe it to the taxpayers to do so.

“These are tough times; libraries get busier during economic tough times,’’ he said. “It is not a time to cut off people’s access to libraries, especially given we haven’t done anything wrong.’’

Residents will notice loss of access to other libraries’ collections the most, Nutting said.

Last year, Franklin’s patrons borrowed nearly 48,000 items from other libraries, while the Franklin library loaned out about the same number of titles to other communities, said Celeste Bruno, spokeswoman for the state Board of Library Commissioners.

Meanwhile, thanks to creative scheduling by library director Felicia Oti, Franklin may be able to return shortly to a six-day schedule, said Cindy Dobrzynski, chairwoman of the library’s board of trustees.

The library went to a five-day schedule two years ago to save money. The library also has tapped into a network of retired teachers to begin offering a student assistance desk last fall. The help desk is staffed by volunteers two hours a day, Monday through Thursday.

“We have a dedicated board,’’ Dobrzynski said. “Our job is to advocate for our library, and I think we have more than done that. It is surprising to us that we are not being looked at as a model for what you can do with less money, instead of just saying you have less.’’

To receive certification from the state Board of Library Commissioners, a library must meet standards based on the community’s population.

With about 33,000 residents, Franklin’s library must have a budget of $916,733, be open at least 59 hours a week over six days, and spend 13 percent of its budget on materials.

Otherwise, the library can request a waiver, which Franklin did in 2004, 2005, 2010, and 2011.

The previous waivers, plus the deep cut in the 2012 budget, raised too many issues for commissioners to grant another waiver to Franklin, Comeau said.

“While we recognize that all communities are facing extremely difficult fiscal climates, the Franklin public library has been placed in great risk by gross cuts that may lead to disastrous effect,’’ Katherine Dibble, chairwoman of the Board of Library Commissioners, wrote in the Feb. 6 letter rejecting the town’s bid for a waiver.

The public library in Franklin is a boxy, Greek-styled building of gray granite with Doric columns at its main entrance off Main Street overlooking a statue of Benjamin Franklin seated and reading a book. A nearby plaque proclaims: “Franklin Public Library, First Public Library in America.’’

The library is considered to be the oldest public lending library in the nation, according to the American Library Association. While there are older libraries, most were established as private institutions that loaned books only to members or subscribers, said association spokeswoman Macey Morales.

As the story goes, Franklin - the storied diplomat, statesman, and inventor - was asked to donate a church bell to the Massachusetts town when it changed its name from Exeter to Franklin in 1778. He declined, substituting a collection of books instead.

In 1790, the year of Franklin’s death, the town voted to establish what is considered the nation’s first public library to handle the free lending of his books to residents.

Those books remain in the current building, which was built in 1903 and renovated in the 1980s to add a children’s wing.

That history and the ignominious decertification resonate with the library’s patrons, including John Gosselin, 60, a resident who often uses the facility for research.

“It’s ridiculous,’’ said Gosselin, clutching a file folder of papers under his arm. “This is the oldest library in the country, and it never should have come to this. I’m sure, eventually, it will get recertified, but it never should have come to this.’’

Despite the decertification, the library remains open and a center of civic life in Franklin. Usage is up 200 patrons a week, Nutting said, and he has heard nothing but positive comments about the renovations, which have freed up space for more shelving on the second floor and allowed reconfiguration of the first floor around a single circulation desk flanked by offices and bins of video game cartridges available for lending. A visual display near the entrance touts the $104.5 million high school Franklin wants to build. The project comes up for a town vote next month.

Upstairs, Tricia Callison-Keller knelt to read titles on a shelf of DVDs as her boys, Joel, 7, and Jake, 4, looked for a “Star Wars’’ movie.

“I can’t find one, two, or three,’’ Joel said, before pulling “The Empire Strikes Back’’ (number five in the six-movie series) off the shelf.

Callison-Keller’s family are regulars at the library, where she often has taken advantage of the online “Request It’’ feature to reserve books and other materials from libraries across Massachusetts. Losing the library’s certification cost Franklin the ability to draw on the catalogs of other libraries, including a vast online collection of e-books Callison-Keller had hoped to use with the family’s new iPad.

“The situation is really upsetting, and not just for us, but for their grandparents, who live nearby, too,’’ Callison-Keller said. “It’s not good at all.’’

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