By Roger McKinney
SENECA, Mo. —
On Thursday, Seneca resident Paul Vickers needed the computer at the Seneca Public Library to conduct research for his disability case. Because of his limited income, Vickers said, he can’t afford Internet service at his home.
“This is so convenient,” he said.
But beyond taking care of business, Vickers said the library provides Seneca with a gathering place.
“It’s the only place we have in town to interact and do something constructive,” Vickers said. “If you take this away, it’s just a bad thing.”
Yet, that’s what is proposed.
Across the country, small-town and rural public libraries face financial struggles including flat or decreasing revenue, increasing costs and rising demand for services such as Internet access. Some libraries are responding by cutting hours and services or getting by with smaller staffs. The library in Seneca, a branch of the Neosho-Newton County Library, is now slated for closure. In fact, it was supposed to close on Nov. 1, but a petition drive from residents prompted the library board to agree to keep it open through June to look at funding options.
The Seneca library was busy on Thursday. Adults and children were there for Children’s Story Time. Branch manager Mitzi Thurman read a couple of Halloween-themed books for excited children. Then the children did an art project in which they made mummies.
Retired teachers Larry and Gloria Craven were joined at the library by their granddaughters, 4-year-old Maya Craven and 11-year-old Emily Evans.
They said Maya learns socialization skills during story time and she participates in art projects. As a family, they check out books and videos. They said they can’t imagine losing their library.
“We feel it would be a great loss,” Larry Craven said.
He said there must be some solution to keep it open. The library is funded through a countywide property tax.
“It’s just real important for these young people to have this access,” he said.
Andrea Berstler, president of the Association of Rural and Small Libraries, said small libraries have been making do with limited resources for years, and noted that in more isolated rural locations, they may be the only source of books and other entertainment or Internet access. The latter has become increasingly important as a tool to help people find work.
“They are the only game in town in a lot of locations,” Berstler said.
And while many aren’t threatened with closure, they are having to make tough choices.
At the Carthage Public Library, director Jennifer Seaton said the library has operated with a 26-cent property tax since 1988. The city also subsidizes the library budget. She said a 2008 ballot measure to increase the levy by 6 cents was soundly defeated.
“Like all other small libraries, we’re facing financial challenges,” Seaton said. “Our hours have been cut back. Our materials have been decreased.”
But she said individuals faced with economic hardships of their own turn to the library.
“The demand for our services is higher than ever,” Seaton said. “People are needing our services more. We’re needing to do more.”
The library’s $435,000 annual budget is augmented with a $105,000 city subsidy.
The Webb City Public Library has its challenges, too, said director Sue Oliveira.
“We certainly don’t have enough money, that’s for sure,” Oliveira said. “One thing that’s a challenge for us and other small libraries is technology is moving very fast, and it’s hard to find the money to keep up with all that.
“It’s rough right now,” she continued.
Webb City voters approved a 9-cent levy increase for the library in 2008, for a total of 29 cents.
About $250,000 of the library’s $290,000 budget is from property tax. She said the library also receives some donations to its foundation and other revenue.
The Neosho-Newton County Library Board, which governs the libraries in Neosho and Seneca, last month voted to close the Seneca library, citing financial constraints. Members voted 9-1 earlier this month to keep the library open until at least June 30, while a committee develops a solution. Josh Dodson, president of the Seneca Chamber of Commerce, had presented the library board with the signatures of 2,100 library supporters.
Newton County voters earlier this year rejected a ballot issue to increase the library levy by 15 cents, to 25 cents. The vote was 1,687 against and 940 in favor. The vote in Seneca was 175 against and 30 in favor.
Approval would have increased the $546,000 budget of the Neosho-Newton County Library by around $800,000 annually.
At the Seneca library, Larry Craven and another patron, Kelley Leonard, independently said they think the vote may have turned out differently if voters knew closing the Seneca library was being considered. The library has been in the town since 1935.
Keri Collinsworth, president of the library board, has said operating the Seneca branch costs $67,000 annually.
Ginny Ray, Neosho-Newton County Library director, said the levy increase would have raised enough money to pay the debt on a planned expansion in Neosho. She said it also would have benefited the Seneca branch.
“It was discouraging,” Ray said of the election defeat.
She echoed the sentiment of other library directors.
“Most of us are struggling to make ends meet,” she said. “This is a huge problem all across the country.”
Marcia Warner is past president of the Public Library Association, which is part of the American Library Association. She is also a former small-town library director.
She said when towns have to choose between funding police and fire departments or libraries, libraries often lose.
“I think it’s a short-sighted target,” Warner said. She said small libraries provide services that allow residents Internet access to pay their bills online or apply for jobs. They also train senior citizens with computer skills.
“There’s that lifelong learning piece, and libraries are the ones helping to do that,” she said.
She said when libraries close, they often reopen after residents remember how much they relied on it.
“People realize what a value they are for the community,” Warner said.
Ginny Ray, director of the Neosho-Newton County Library, said there has been some discussion among board members about placing a levy issue back on the ballot in a future election.