Library Trustees Looking at Declining Revenue, Increasing Needs

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

A statue of children reading at the East Lansing Public Library.

The East Lansing Public Library Board of Trustees met on April 15 via Zoom to discuss how the City’s library might offer services to patrons amid social distancing requirements and decreasing revenue. Even beyond the problem of anonymous people showing up to be disruptive, it was not an easy conversation.

The East Lansing Public Library closed to the public on March 16, and its full-time, salaried staff have been working from home, running virtual reading groups and considering how to expand the library’s digital holdings.

City Council’s liaison to the Board, Jessy Gregg, stated that the upcoming fiscal year would be a lean one. The City’s draft budget for next year, which has not yet been publicly discussed or approved, was developed before the pandemic. Gregg stated that Council may need to pass the budget as recommended but revisit and amend it often.

The library has already felt the impact of the pandemic-related recession. When the City of East Lansing laid off 125 of its “contingent” workers – mostly part-time hourly workers who do not receive benefits – the library lost ten of its pages who work shelving books. These people were laid off since they could not do their work from home.

Library Director Kristin Shelley stated that because these workers are eligible for unemployment and should receive the federal unemployment benefits in addition to the state’s, they may temporarily make more money unemployed. When the library reopens, these workers will not need to reapply for their jobs. But it is unclear when or if they may be asked return.

Sources of revenue for the library are drying up.

In-person library fundraisers cannot continue as planned, and donations are falling.

State law mandates that a defined portion of penal fines, such as traffic tickets, must be distributed to libraries. For the East Lansing library, penal fines provide about 8 percent of total revenue. At the meeting, Shelley said that according to Interim Police Chief Steve Gonzalez, ELPD only had four traffic stops that resulted in tickets in the last four weeks.

One resident who attended the virtual meeting voiced her concern that library workers had been let go and questioned if other funds could have been reallocated to keep them employed. She also questioned funding the library through penal fines. To her, it contradicted the library’s community-outreach mission.

Shelley explained that the state mandated that some penal fines be routed to libraries, but agreed that relying on punishment to fund the library was less than ideal.

Shelley also outlined other major costs facing the library, including $500,000 to replace the building’s boilers, repair a leaky roof, and redo some of the buckling sidewalk.

The state should be sending $16,000 in promised funding to the library, and the Friends of the East Lansing Public Library (FOELPL) is stepping up now by issuing a $15,000 check to the library.

But FOELPL President Maureen McCabe-Power also predicts that FOELPL”s funds will drop. The support group currently has $79,000 in assets, but donations and sales will most likely plummet due to the recession. (FOELPL is operating shops on Etsy and E-bay to sell vintage books to raise revenue.)

What comes next?

The Board of Trustees also discussed possible options for reopening and what services the library could offer while respecting social distancing measures. It drafted two generic plans – one for dealing with pandemic and one for gradually reopening.

These plans were developed by consulting recommendations from the CDC, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the American Library Association, and other Michigan libraries. The plan includes best methods for sanitization and cleaning as well as plans for staff working from home.

Secretary of the Library Board of Trustees (and former East Lansing mayor) Diane Goddeeris said it is not clear whether the library will open at all over the summer. She believed the library could play an important role in helping students prepare for the upcoming school year.

A professional nurse, Goddeeris said she wants medical grade masks put aside for the medical professionals. However, she believed it would be prudent to ask patrons to wear cloth masks when the library reopens.

The East Lansing Fire Department, which provides emergency medical services in East Lansing, is working to procure masks for City of East Lansing employees, including those at the library.

The library may begin to offer curbside service once the stay-at-home order has been lifted. Members would call ahead and the ordered material, wrapped in a plastic bag, would be left outside on a table, for contactless pickup. Returned books would be quarantined for 24 hours before placing them on the shelves, as per CDC recommendations.

A library building reopened to the public would also look different. ELPL plans to move furniture to encourage patrons to keep 6 feet apart. Plexiglass has also been ordered to install sliding shields at the circulation desk.

As the library reopens, its services may also look different, focusing on helping people find jobs and other resources as unemployment rises. The library staff is considering how to effectively assist remotely.

In the meantime, ELPL is working hard to provide services to patrons during the pandemic. It plans to use funds from the state and FOELPL to expand its digital and online holdings.

Related: East Lansing Public Library Has Treasure Trove Online, Open to All

Related: East Lansing Teen Programming Continues in Online Format

Correction: When published, this article suggested that state law mandated the percentage of library revenue obtained from penal fines. That is in error and the article was corrected at 9 a.m. on the date of publication.

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