Librarian Assistant Shandra Thomas reshelves reference material at the main branch downtown.
ALBANY, Ga. -- In the next couple of weeks, the new Oakland Library branch will open off U.S. Highway 82 in southwest Lee County. Partially funded by $2 million from the state of Georgia, the new facility will give Lee County's library system four branches.
That's one more than in much-larger Dougherty County, which recently closed its sparsely used Westtown and Southside branches in what officials say was a necessary cost-cutting measure.
Meanwhile, in Southwest Georgia's Randolph and Calhoun counties, those counties' library systems are both headed by one person, who usually spends two days a week at one and three at the other. Head librarian Dianna Carter's pay, which comes from state funds, is split between allocations designated for the two counties.
Ever-shrinking budgets nationwide have taken a toll on so-called non-essential services at all levels of government, leaving such facilities as libraries vulnerable to cuts like those suffered in Dougherty County.
"(Recently deceased library director) Ashley (Moore) and I and some of the other people with the library board sat down and crunched the numbers," Dougherty Library Board Chairman Guy Craft said. "It was either close the less-utilized library branches now or run out of money before the end of the fiscal year and have to close all the libraries.
"We've received criticism from some in the community because the (Westtown and Southside) branches are in predominantly black neighborhoods, but we never considered this a black or white issue. We were simply trying to extend the budget we were given to work with to the end of the year."
Dougherty County's financial woes would seem to make Lee County's expansion of its system even more impressive. But Lee officials say the timing is coincidental.
"(Opening the new branch) is something that's been in the works here for six or seven years," Lee Library Board Chairman Eddie Hinman said. "We were just looking for an opportunity to build a branch that would allow people in the south part of the county to have a place close by, so they wouldn't have to drive all the way into Leesburg or into Albany."
Still, even Lee County has not been immune to cuts in all its departments. Yet the library system has not had to impact its employees, even adding staff to fill positions at the new branch.
"We have not had to cut back on hours, services or employees at this time," Lee Library Director Claire Leavy said. In fact, the library has increased the services it provides to users.
"We've added three databases to the services provided: Literature Resource Center (literary criticism and other resources), World Book Web (educational resource with information, interactive educational games, etc.) and Zinio, a magazine service which allows Lee County Library patrons to access magazines online from most devices," Leavy wrote in an email to The Herald.
Carter said she had trouble juggling the needs of the Randolph and Calhoun libraries at first, but she now finds the pace suits her perfectly.
"If I were put in just one library now, I'd probably be bored out of my mind," the former Floridian who moved to Georgia six years ago "to get out of that state" said. "What I've learned to do in my two years of managing both libraries is to make orders or do other things for both libraries simultaneously with a few minor tweaks.
"Since we're doing things that impact people's college and professional careers -- such as helping with online computer classes and resume preparation -- I think rural libraries have taken on an even more important role than simply providing books, videos and magazines."
Tricia Henson was head librarian at the now-closed Southside branch in Dougherty County, and she's been shifted to the reference librarian position at the county's Central Library branch. She said she wasn't particularly surprised by the closings at Southside and Westtown.
"That's the trend now throughout the nation," Henson said. "Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised to see more cuts coming. When budgets have to be cut, they look at services that they feel are not essential. I think many of the services that we provide now are essential, though."
Indeed, libraries are no longer merely book lenders for a community's readers. In addition to serving as primary providers of reference and archived materials used in educational and historical studies, libraries are now a primary source for computer access for individuals who have no personal computer.
"College students use our reference materials extensively," Dougherty Central Library assistant Shandra Thomas said. "Patrons also use our download stations, load books onto their iPad or Kindle, and check out our audiobooks and videos."
Leavy, too, notes that the library's role in patrons' lives has expanded.
"People who didn't read a traditional book before (the) technology (existed) now will download audios on their iPods and listen while exercising or traveling," she said. "The Lee County Library offers both audio downloads and e-book downloads.
"Users do still come to the library to use computers for online study or testing, online training, job research and resume writing or submission, educational and recreational research, as well as to check email. Users also come to use Wi-Fi in-house or in the parking lot. Parents bring their children to the library for storytime and crafts as well as to check out books."
Those kinds of services, Carter said, are vital in smaller communities like Edison and Cuthbert.
"Many people in rural communities like the ones we serve come to the library to learn how to use computers," she said. "Even the people who have computers at home -- and there are a lot fewer than you might think -- come to our libraries to learn how to operate them. When you're helping people with vital aspects of their lives, you realize how important the services you provide are."
Craft said the Dougherty Library Board had been hoping to actually expand services by adding a branch near the former Cooper Tire facility on U.S. 82. But financial woes left the board to take the drastic measure of closing the two underperforming branches. And the sudden loss of Moore to health issues added to the system's woes.
"We were forced to face a reality: You can't do anything without money," Craft, who worked as a librarian for more than 40 years, said. "We've been working at a shortfall of around $1 million since 2009, and it's just an oxymoron to say 'do more with less.' What we're trying to do is the best we can with what we have.
"Some people have said we should have shut down the Westside library branch because the people there have access to travel more so than the people near the other branches. But it wouldn't have made sense to shut down a facility being used to the nth degree."
Craft said the library board is seeking innovative ways to offset cuts to the library system.
"We're trying to establish a 'friends of the library' group, which we hope to organize soon," he said. "We want to involve the community in helping our library system thrive.
"We also plan to put up a plaque to honor Ashley. She was the youngest director we ever had, but I think she overextended herself. I think she took the library home with her. Mary Antoine is doing an excellent job as interim director, but we'll do a search for a new permanent director soon. We wanted to wait a while in deference to Ashley."