DeKalb has one of the most extensive library systems in the state. More than 3 million visitors use the resources of its two dozen facilities scattered throughout the county. Patrons log on to library computers more than 2,500 times daily and its website receives more than 3,000 remote hits each day.
But the library system is in crisis. Budget cuts have forced library administrators to trim staff, reduce operating hours, purchase fewer materials and take other measures to save money.
DeKalb County Library Director Alison Weissinger said the library board and management staff requested about $17 million from the county for fiscal year 2012 to operate all branches at full capacity. No decision has been made yet. But if the FY 2011 budget is any indication, the library is unlikely to get the full funding it needs. Weissinger said last fiscal year the library requested $15.9 million but received $12.5 million. State funding, which represents a smaller share of funding, has also decreased over the past few years, she added.
The 22 percent decrease in funding last fiscal year delayed the opening of the new Stonecrest Library and the expanded Salem-Panola and Hairston Crossing libraries. Funds from a 2005 bond referendum paid for the facilities, but budget cuts prevented management from staffing them.
“We were only able to open all three last summer by reducing hours and reassigning some staff members,” Weissinger said. “Reducing hours was the option patrons said they preferred in a survey, rather than closing branches.”
Furthermore, the library system faces sharp reductions in its budget to purchase materials such as books, DVDs, CDs and audio books. Its funding from the county for such purchases was $100,000 in FY 2011, down from a high of about $2.02 million in FY 2008.
Weissinger said, “This does not just mean fewer items on our shelves, but also longer wait times for in-demand materials we do have.”
In response to these financial challenges, the DeKalb Library Foundation, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the library system, is stepping up its efforts to raise money.
Executive director Donna Brazzell said her work includes communicating the situation to the public. “An important part of my job is to raise awareness,” she explained. “People know that public libraries receive operating funds from the government, but they don’t realize that much of the funding also comes from private sources.”
Brazzell’s organization has found creative ways to raise money to enhance the libraries’ programs and services. But the funds cannot be used to pay library staff salaries.
Engraved bricks and bench plaques showing names of contributors are two fund-raising avenues that the foundation uses. It started these programs last year at the Tucker library. Last August, the foundation held a ceremony to unveil 93 engraved bricks and one bench. This effort raised $7,500.
The foundation’s biggest fund-raising event last year was “A Mysterious Evening.” Author Karin Slaughter and other authors appeared at the event, which raised $50,000 for the county’s libraries. Brazzell said another “A Mysterious Evening” with a different group of authors is scheduled for March.
Slaughter, who resides in the DeKalb section of Atlanta, has championed the cause of the county’s library system. The crime mystery author appeared before the Georgia House of Representatives’ special legislative session last August to draw attention to the problem. A regular patron of the Decatur Library, Slaughter donates all of her proceeds from online sales of her new short story A Thorn in My Side to fund the libraries.
Despite the challenges, Brazzell said she is optimistic about DeKalb libraries’ future. “We have a lot of people who care and want to help,” she said.
She noted that county residents depend on its services. An increasing number of them are unemployed and use the computers to search for jobs and to submit online job applications. Immigrants attend free English classes. And underprivileged students not only use the Internet at the libraries, they also acquire online research skills with the guidance of library staff.
Brazzell added: “There will always be a need for libraries. I don’t see us not being a vital part of the community.”