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Library services spared in city budget cuts

by Amy Kingsley

A woman wearing an oversized Mickey Mouse T-Shirt stood silently across the counter as Belinda Lam cradled a phone against her ear and typed queries into an online catalog. The transaction involved beads, or rather the books about beads that a particular customer sought.

Unfortunately, crafting books are among the most popular titles at the Central Library, a fact attested to by the shelves ransacked of bead-related titles. So the information specialist located the books in other branches, put them on hold for the customer and transferred one to her nearest branch library. The woman, a newcomer to the area, thanked Lam for her help.

‘“I never knew that a library has to do so much,’” Lam said.

This morning, Lam has fielded a call from a citizen trying to find someone who lived in Greensboro almost 30 years ago, helped several information counter walkups and answered a few internet queries. All of this is in addition to her capacity as a special needs librarian, where she labors to make library and city services more accessible to citizens with physical and mental disabilities.

In her native Taiwan, librarians occupied a much more authoritarian position and customers rarely asked questions, Lam said. In addition, the facilities were used less for their resources and more often as places of study. Lam thought library jobs entailed little more than some occasional filing.

That is not the case at the Central Library’s information and reference desk, where the staff cycles through rotations answering phones, manning the information desk and tending to special collections. As late morning turned to afternoon, business at the information counter increased from a trickle to a steady flow.

The library staff helping customers with questions ranging from computers to career counseling on June 8 did so in the shadow of proposed budget cuts that would eliminate 13 positions at the information desk. The city council nixed the proposal at a budget work session later that evening, a development that allowed Library Director Sandy Neerman to breathe a sigh of relief.

‘“Of course I was concerned,’” Neerman said. ‘“Council is and will always be faced with the responsibility for being good stewards of the public’s money.’”

That responsibility has meant recent City Council scrutiny of a proposed budget that would have raised property taxes by more than five cents. After City Manager Mitch Johnson presented the budget, which would have meant a $78 increase in taxes on a house valued at $150,000, Councilman Mike Barber asked for an alternative plan that would have trimmed $8.7 million from the budget. Those cuts ‘— including the proposal to eliminate the information desk ‘— would have abolished the need for a tax hike.

‘“That desk is the professional underpinning for the library’s information services,’” Neerman said.

Those services run the gamut from historical specialties to training in new technologies. Helen Snow, the North Carolina librarian, maintains the collection of state-related materials, microfilm copies of Greensboro newspapers dating back to the 1820s and oral histories of the sit-in movement.

‘“Certainly everything is not online,’” Snow said.

She fields calls from scholars around the world who are interested in accessing transcripts from the civil rights era. Snow is a walking encyclopedia on local and state history. The Greensboro Historical Museum and city officials regularly consult her.

Arthur Erickson, the genealogy librarian, wasn’t worried about the proposed cuts. Perhaps that’s because he can demonstrate a tangible economic benefit to his services. About 25 percent of those who use the genealogy collection are out-of-towners retracing their Piedmont roots.

Business Librarian Martha Thomas also specializes in economic development. She helps incipient entrepreneurs with the paperwork required to form a business and marketing themselves to expand.

Despite the wealth of resources, most of those seeking help from the information desk are citizens seeking basic computer training, said Research Librarian Stephen Culkin.

‘“Those of us who use computers on a daily basis sometimes take for granted that all people can use a computer,’” Culkin said.

The information desk serves people from all walks of life, he added.

‘“One minute I can have a UNCG professor standing in front of me and the next it might be a homeless person,’” Culkin said.

The information desk is a place where study guides for a high school equivalency exam occupy shelf space right next to materials about graduate school aptitude tests. And for now the desk is safe. The same cannot be said for some other city services put up on the chopping block in an effort to save money.

Hours into the special budget meeting, and after a contentious discussion, city council members voted to end unlimited ride passes for the SCAT busses that provide transportation for those with disabilities. The council also approved staff cuts for the Mosaic Project and the Commission on the Status of Women. Even with those cuts, and a 5-4 decision against adding 32 new police officers to the force, the council members still unofficially approved a four and three-quarters cent tax hike.

The meeting, which lasted more than five hours, veered between amiability and antagonism. Councilman Tom Phillips chided fellow council members for their unwillingness to completely cut more than $75,000 in staff support for the Commission on the Status of Women.

Councilwoman Diane Bellamy-Small accused the council of reneging on its obligation to Greensboro’s neediest citizens by increasing SCAT fares instead of cutting funding for downtown economic development. Bellamy-Small voted for the three-quarter cent tax increase that would have paid for 32 new police officers. Council will vote to ratify the budget on June 20 and it will take affect July 1, the beginning of the fiscal year.

Although the library prevailed in this budget discussion, Neerman is no stranger to being on the losing end of budget cuts. In 2002 an $8 million shortfall in state funds resulted in a tax hike and budget cuts that closed two branch libraries. This time, however, Neerman and her staff prevailed with a wide majority of council support.

‘“We play an important role in economic development,’” Neerman said. ‘“We are a basic service.’”

To comment on this story, please e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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