Elizabeth Regan
Cragin Memorial Library, Colchester (Elizabeth Regan)

Another reduction in state funding has Connecticut libraries questioning whether they can continue a model that emphasizes local control.

The legislature restored some of the cuts proposed earlier this year by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, including one that would have eliminated the program allowing Connecticut residents to check out books from any of 192 participating libraries. But the final state budget approved in June represents a decrease in library funding that continues a trend State Librarian Kendall Wiggin said has been going on for years.

“Our cuts have been real, and they’ve been sustained. We’ve been managing with less and less and less and still trying to keep up the same service levels,” Wiggin said.

He said it might be time for Connecticut to look at a tactic being used in other states – regionalization.

“I’ve been talking to my staff about how maybe we should look at what some model legislation would look like. I don’t think we could ever force that to happen, and I don’t think we should, but there are some parts of the state where that would make some sense,” he said.

The mostly rural northeastern and northwestern sections of Connecticut, in particular, have the most towns with the fewest local resources. Loss of state funding can mean fewer books and programs, fewer staff members and less time with an “open” sign on the door,” and “if you don’t have a large tax base, the odds of getting more money aren’t that good.”

While he doesn’t see systemic change coming anytime soon, Wiggin would like to at least start examining best practices in other states to see how libraries can collaborate while preserving a local presence.

“People are proud of their local libraries, and they should be, but it doesn’t mean they have to be administered at that level,” he said.

Kate Byroade, director of Colchester’s Cragin Memorial Library and a midwestern transplant, said regionalization is the norm across the country. She envisioned a structure through which several towns might share one director and some program specialists, but maintain separate librarians at each local site.

One of the barriers to regionalization is the state’s deep-rooted sense of “home rule,” which in some cases puts local control before cost savings, according to Byroade.

“Everybody’s really proud that their town has a library. I think there would be a perception that that would mean their library would have to close, and in a few cases it might. But I think you could run libraries more efficiently and effectively,” she said.

In April, Malloy addressed a gathering of 70 librarians at an event co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries and the Connecticut State Library, even after he had presented a budget proposal that included $3.5 million in cuts to the State Library System, according to the Connecticut Post.

The cuts would have zeroed out funding to local libraries, including a grant established in 1967 through a law to ensure public libraries receive adequate funding, according to Wiggin.

Malloy told the librarians their organizations would have to depend more on independent fundraising and foundation support to supplement local and state money, the Connecticut Post wrote.

Meanwhile, Wiggin said libraries are being creative about cost savings. The state library will save significant money through a change in the vendor it has used for its online, statewide library catalog for the past 20 years.

The statewide library catalog and the interlibrary loan service are currently offline during the upgrade, which Wiggin said is behind schedule but should be completed by the end of the year. Until it’s done, local libraries cannot request books through the exhaustive list of statewide holdings to supplement their collections. Nor can individual patrons use the catalog to request books for research or pleasure reading.

The disruption does not have much of an effect on the 60 percent of libraries in the state that have subscribed to one of four regional borrowing consortiums, according to Byroade. Patrons at those libraries can lean on other participating libraries to fulfill 99 percent of their requests, she said. The remaining 40 percent consists of smaller libraries that cannot afford to join a consortium or wealthier libraries that can pay for extensive catalogs on their own, Byroade said.