Christine Stuart photo
Maxine Bleiweis, executive director of the Westport Library (Christine Stuart photo)

Librarians are generally a quiet bunch, but they’re making a lot of noise to help restore funding for a program that was ahead of its time.

Librarians from across the state rallied Wednesday at the state Capitol to ask the General Assembly to restore $1 million in funding for Connecticard — a program that reimburses local libraries for loaning books to out-of-towners.

The program was instituted in 1976.

“I’m mad that after almost 40 years of extreme cooperation over the borders of 169 towns, our governor’s budget throws away the simple elements of equal access to learning,” Maxine Bleiweis, executive director of the Westport Library, said. “. . . I’m mad that we’ll be wasting far more taxpayer money than we’ll ever save if we don’t have a way to borrow over our borders.”

They said the cut means residents will only be able to use the books and other media in their own town’s library.

James Benn, a former librarian and a member of the Lyme Public Library board of trustees, said that for nearly 50 years Connecticut residents have enjoyed a “steady habit of reciprocal borrowing.”

He said that last year Connecticut residents borrowed 4.5 million items from out-of-town libraries. If libraries or individuals had to purchase those books on their own, the cost would exceed $68 million.

“That’s a steady habit of thrift and economy, but it vanishes under this falsely frugal budget,” Benn said.

Kate Byroade, director of the Cragin Memorial Library in Colchester, said the Connecticard program is powerful in that it equalizes access and is extremely efficient. She said the cost of the program is a “sliver of a sliver of a sliver in this budget.”

But the library cuts in the budget extend beyond the Connecticard program.

Christine Stuart photo
Library rally (Christine Stuart photo)

Byroade said her library’s budget is $500,000 and she only has about $50,000 to buy all the items she lends, but she would not be able to make that $50,000 go very far without the help of the Connecticut Library Consortium, which also is on the chopping block.

The Connecticut Library Consortium is a statewide membership collaborative that helps save money by coordinating statewide purchasing contracts for books and services. Byroade said her library saved $12,000 last year by purchasing her materials through the consortium.

In West Hartford, where Byroade lives, they saved more than $129,000 through the consortium.

“That savings means something,” Byroade said.

She said the consortium costs each Connecticut resident about 10 cents a year and yields $7.1 million in savings.

“I call that really good return on investment,” she added.

She said the cuts to these collaborative services represent false savings that put pressure on local tax dollars.

The total cut to the state library system in Malloy’s proposed budget is $3.5 million.

Devon Puglia, a spokesman for Malloy, said the governor believes in the capacity of libraries to bind communities and bring neighbors together.

“We also are proud, too, that Connecticut passed the first legislation nationwide to create a statewide e-book purchasing program,” Puglia said. “To be clear, the Connecticard is not being eliminated — libraries can still continue the program and accept existing cards using the funds that they have. But ultimately, as we build a brighter Connecticut for tomorrow by making tough decisions today, we need to be creative in how we adapt to and tailor offerings for an information age.”

Rep. Hilda Santiago, D-Meriden, said she is working to get the cuts restored, but she encouraged the librarians to contact their legislators.

“The libraries are dear to my heart because that’s where I went as a child to learn how to read and to learn the language,” Santiago said.

The two budget writing committees are currently finishing up their budget now and it’s too soon to say whether the libraries will be spared. The libraries are competing with close to $1 billion in spending cuts to a large number of programs.