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Libraries’ Tall Order: Filling Shelves

Times Staff Writer

At San Bernardino County libraries, the waiting list for “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” had reached 200 before that sixth novel in the popular series was even released.

The library system had ordered 100 copies, and when it hit the shelves the demand was so great that 150 more were urgently purchased -- busting the already tight budget for children’s literature.

Harry Potter mania comes around only about once a year, but a scarcity of books is something library administrators and users deal with regularly. State and county budget crunches have significantly shrunk county library system funding across the state since the early 1990s, particularly affecting the 29 branches in rapidly growing San Bernardino County.

“It’s one of the lowest budgets for a library [system] of its size in the country,” says County Librarian Ed Kieczykowski. “Maybe even the lowest.”

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The library system’s budget has been about $9 per resident since 2002. During the 2004-05 fiscal year, 60 cents of that $9 could be used to buy new materials; the remainder going toward upkeep, staff and daily expenditures.

The county’s per-capita spending on new library materials, Kieczykowski says, is far less than the $2.81-per-person average that other California library systems spent during 2004-05 on new materials, which include books, electronic databases, DVDs, videos and CDs.

As new residents swell the county’s ranks, library administrators say, the branches can barely handle the demand. “Nobody makes anybody go to the library,” Kieczykowski says. “But people come, and we serve everybody. But we need to have money to run services.”

Kieczykowski and the county’s collection development coordinator, Nannette Brinker-Barrett, say their biggest problem is getting books onto the stacks.

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“It’s like going to [the local grocery store] and having no food to buy,” Kieczykowski jokes.

“There are always new books coming out, more expensive books,” Brinker-Barrett says. “In an ideal situation, people would see multiple copies of every title.”

Instead, small budgets force Brinker-Barrett to choose between best sellers and educational books, between the latest edition of a printed encyclopedia or its electronic subscription.

She says many of the materials the county system receives are donated, by individuals or through the efforts of volunteers, especially Friends of the Library.

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“We probably don’t buy enough of anything ... but we at least try to have one copy of every [popular] title,” she adds.

San Bernardino County was far closer to state spending averages before the state budget crisis of the early ‘90s. Afterward, the state kept more of the property tax money that had gone to fund county library systems.

Riverside County adjusted to the loss of funds, in part, by adopting “development impact fees,” which were approved in 2001 to raise the funds needed for serving a growing population. Industrial and residential developers are charged a per-unit fee, usually amounting to several thousand dollars, to bolster services such as police and fire, roads, parks and libraries. And developers are charged a separate, smaller fee to help support the library system.

“Things are looking up,” says Nancy Johnson, a Riverside County librarian. “We are buying books at a rapid rate and we’ll have very well-stocked libraries by the end of the year.”

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Johnson says the County Board of Supervisors “didn’t want to turn off development, and they don’t want to end library services, so they needed to raise the funds somehow.”

Riverside County Supervisor Bob Buster, an initial proponent of the fees, says they are key to stocking libraries for a county with 1.9 million residents and counting.

“Because of the county growth rate, it’s very important to keep up from a materials standpoint,” Buster says. “We thought it was entirely justifiable.”

Many library systems, such as San Bernardino County’s, depend heavily on volunteers to help with acquisitions.

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Both counties help each other with an interlibrary loan system, bringing the combined materials count to 2.12 million.

Other counties in the region are also feeling the crunch. About ten years ago, Orange County’s library system budget for new materials was $6 million. This year, the collections coordinator for the county system will make do with $2.5 million, or about $1.66 per capita.

“I doubt you’ll ever find a librarian or administrator to say that we’re operating on too much funding,” says John Adams, an Orange County librarian. “I think we’re operating at an insufficient level of funding ... [but] there are a couple of tactics that are helping” -- such as fundraisers and materials sharing among libraries.

With increasing property values, Los Angeles County nearly doubled its new-materials budget for the coming fiscal year, climbing from last year’s $5 million to $9.5 million.

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With 2.5 million library card holders, 84 branches and four bookmobiles, L.A. County’s system still remains below the national norm considering its population, library system spokeswoman Nancy Meahr says.

In San Bernardino County, three state grants and some local aid are helping the system handle the costs of building three more libraries over the next three years. The first of them is scheduled to open in Highland in 2006.

“I think we’ll make progress every year, but we still have a long way to go,” Kieczykowski says.


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