Library Shutdown in Camden, N.J.

Times are tough for libraries. To keep the doors open, one city is turning its operations over to the county.

Facing a $26.5 million budget deficit for fiscal 2011, Camden, N.J., Mayor Dana Redd asked each department to cut 24 percent from its budget. Her mandate applied to all city services, with one notable exception -- the public library system would not be required to make any cuts. Instead, its three branches would be shut down.

The reason? The library system, in operation for 105 years, was funded through a combination of state and local funds. State law requires that the city contribute at least $398,000 per year to fund the library, which the city did in 2010 -- down from more than $900,000 in 2009. Although the city's 80,000 residents rely on the system for reading materials and computers to apply for jobs, the budget could no longer sustain any of the three branches.

Despite the city library shutdown, Redd still wanted to maintain library service for her citizens. So she reached out to Camden County.

For cities in Camden's situation, joining the county system is not uncommon. In fact, ever since the county's library system was created in 1921, municipalities have been welcome to join. And many have -- since its inception, 26 of the county's 37 municipalities have done so, giving them access to the county's six library branches. The City of Camden makes 27.

To become a member of the Camden County Library System, the Camden City Council must pass a resolution requesting to join the county system. Once the county passes and approves the resolution, the city helps fund the county system by charging residents a dedicated tax based on property value.

Last August, Redd, a longtime city library advocate, announced her intention to seek the City Council's approval in joining the Camden County Library System. "As a lifelong resident of Camden, I have always believed our library system to be an essential part in the development of our youth," Redd said during her announcement. "I want to afford Camden's children -- our future -- the same opportunities I had. By joining the county library system, it will give every Camden resident additional access and resources to a wide range of library services throughout the county."

The county was receptive to Camden's desire to join its library system, and the City Council approved the resolution with ease. After studying the feasibility of Camden's integration into the county system, the city and county created an agreement that detailed the services provided by the county and the fee the city would pay the county for said services. One key point of the agreement, says Robert Corrales, Redd's spokesman, was keeping a library branch in the city -- the mayor fought to ensure that at least one branch would remain open and accessible in the community.

Although the city is losing two of its branches, residents will still reap the benefits of programs and services offered in the county system, including more branches to choose from and access to online research databases, enhanced book and DVD collections, downloadable audio, book clubs, and literacy and employment services. The county also plans to expand its learning programs to city residents, including workshops for children and teenagers, as well as employment seminars. The technology services most critically important to city residents, less than a third of whom have high-speed Internet in their homes, will remain intact.

"Joining the county system is an excellent solution that allows residents access to a more vibrant library system, with more books, programs and services for adults and children," says Linda Devlin, director of the Camden County Library System.

Soon, residents may also have access to another branch within the city limits. Camden County library officials are in negotiations with Rutgers University to offer a library branch on their Camden campus. Currently city residents have access to some of the Rutgers library's materials and computer labs, but the new branch would be run by the county and offer the same array of services as other county branches.

The changes to the city's library system, although necessary to ensure a continuation of overall city services, have not come without criticism or trade-offs, Corrales says. Because two branches closed and the county is controlling the third, all 19 employees of the city's library system were given layoff notices. According to Corrales, these employees, however, will be given priority hiring by the county when the jobs are posted. "Obviously people are thankful that we were able to at least have a branch remain open in Camden," Corrales says. "And the possibility of Rutgers allowing us to use their library system is also a plus, but there are some who wish that all of them can be open. Given the times that we're in, it's just not possible."

The finalized agreement between the city and county took effect in mid-February. "The county library system is excited for this opportunity to provide excellent library services to Camden residents in a manner that is cost-effective to the taxpayer," Devlin says. "We hope to build strong ties with the city of Camden and Rutgers University as we work to serve the community's informational and educational needs."

Camden isn't the first city forced to make difficult decisions regarding its library service. To save money, libraries nationwide have reduced their hours, staff and community programs. In New York City, the three library systems managed to avoid branch closures after drastic budget cuts, but operate fewer hours than they previously had. In Los Angeles, libraries cut service from six days to five days. In Dallas, the public library system is facing a $12 million to $19 million budget cut.

The problem now, library advocates say, is twofold: Budgets are being slashed, but as job loss continues and families cut back, demand for library services, especially computers and Internet, is quickly increasing. "Without judgment, libraries welcome people wherever they are in their education and are there to assist [them] to the next rung on the ladder," says Susan Benton, president and CEO of the Urban Libraries Council. "When we invest in public libraries, we invest in our future. Libraries are ever more relevant as we move -- as a nation and as citizens -- from the industrial era to the knowledge era."

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.