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Athens County Public Libraries serve as community centers despite budget cuts

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Chelsea Hindenach reads a book to her daughter Eleanor at the Athens Public Library.

When the financial crisis hit in 2008, the Ohio legislature slashed funding to pubic libraries. But nearly a decade later, Athens County libraries continue to serve local communities and are even finding new ways to do so.

A day at the library

On a Monday afternoon in early December, Gloria Moody sits in a corner, eyes glued to the computer screen in front of her. She flips every so often between a webpage and Google Docs.

The 17-year-old is working on a paper for her English class. She’s taking two this semester because she’s graduating early from Trimble High School, which can be seen just outside the window of the Glouster Public Library.

The Glouster Public Library is one of 7 branches in the Athens County Public Library sytem.
The Glouster Public Library is one of 7 branches in the Athens County Public Library sytem. Photo by Connor Perrett.

Moody would do her paper at home, but that’s easier said than done. She doesn’t have a working computer there, which means she’d have to type it all on her phone.

“It’s a lot harder for me to type my essay on my phone and go back and forth between looking something up that I need to know and typing my paper,” she said. “So if I have that problem, I’ll come here.”

Glouster, a city in Athens County’s Trimble Township, is home to just under 2,000 residents.

Thirty percent of residents in the county live below the poverty line, according to a 2016 report from the Athens County Foundation. Three out of 10 children grow up under the poverty line.

Moody didn’t finish her assignment before she left the library as the sun faded for the evening.

“I’ll probably just finish it on my phone,” she said.

The Athens County Public Library’s main branch is in Nelsonville. Others can be found in Athens, The Plains, Chauncey, Coolville, Glouster and Albany.

At the Athens branch, Chelsea Hindenach sat on the floor of the library with her  daughter, Eleanor. Her son, Jonah, was chatting up a librarian about different books he could check out about ancient Greece.

Jonah is homeschooled, and his mom took him to the library to get materials for a lesson on Greek mythology and history.

“It’s huge. We couldn’t do it without the library. We’d be stuck on the computer all day and that’d be no fun.”

Jonah runs back to his mom from the other end of the library.

“I found this, can I get it?” he asked, holding a DVD copy of “VeggieTales.”

Mom says yes. They came for books, but sometimes they get a little something extra, too.

Eleanor plans on the floor of the Athens Public Library with her mother, Chelsea. Her brother, Jonah, reads a book on a chair behind them.
Eleanor plans on the floor of the Athens Public Library with her mother, Chelsea. Her brother, Jonah, reads a book on a chair behind them. Photo by Connor Perrett.

“We get audiobooks fairly often, sometimes movies, and sometimes CDs,” Chelsea said. “I think I’ve rented a bicycle once.”

Hitching a ride

Since 1935, Athens County residents could go to the local library to get something new to read free of charge with a library card. But at libraries throughout the state and here in Athens, library card holders are doing more than just checking out books.

Athens’ libraries began the bicycle program in 2013 as part of a partnership with the Athens County Health Department.

“The idea was just to get people more active,” Director of Athens County Libraries Nick Tepe said.

Bicycles are available to check out at Athens County Libraries. Photo by Connor Perrett.
Bicycles are available to check out at Athens County Libraries. Photo by Connor Perrett.

“The library saw it as an opportunity to assist the community in trying to put more tools in people’s hands to get more active and improve their health that way. What it’s proven to be is not just great for that, but in so many ways.”

An unexpected benefit, Tepe said, was that people without cars are renting bikes to run errands in communities like Nelsonville. There are even people learning to ride for the first time using the library’s bicycles.

“One of my favorite moments that I saw about a year ago was I saw a couple of international students from OU had checked out a couple of bikes, and one was clearly showing the other how to ride a bike,” Tepe said.

By the numbers

The Athens library system sees between 30,000 and 40,000 patrons every month. Around half are visiting the library in the city of Athens. The smallest group — about 1,500 per month — visits the library in Albany, according to 2016 and 2017 data from the Athens County Public Libraries.

In 2013, the Ohio Library Council reported that the state of Ohio had the second most “borrowers” in the nation, only second to Minnesota. Those borrowers, on average, visited their libraries 7.5 times each year. That’s a rate higher than any other state.

But in the age of iPhones, high speed internet, Amazon and ebooks, how are libraries staying afloat?

Funding for Ohio public libraries rose nearly every year from 1985 through 2001, when funding from the Statehouse totaled $496,458,342. It dropped by about $40,000,000 in 2002, but remained relatively the same until 2009, when funding dropped $80,000,000. That’s when things started to change.

 

“During the financial crisis, the state actually proposed slashing funding to Ohio’s libraries by 50 percent, but we pushed back very, very strongly,” Tepe said. “We broke the Statehouse email server several times that week because people were so upset by it. But we still got cut by 30 percent.”

That caused some problems for Athens County libraries. It was forced to shut down a popular home delivery service in 2009. Other changes like a reduction in staff and fewer operating hours followed the state budget cuts that year.

Funding from the state has remained around its 2009 numbers, despite an increase of about 700,000 registered borrowers statewide. Athens saw 2,876 new borrowers sign up in 2016 alone.

Prior to 2008, 70 percent of Ohio’s libraries, including the Athens libraries, were funded entirely by the state, Tepe said. That’s not the case anymore.

Because of a countywide levy passed in 2014, the Athens County Libraries have a little extra cash on hand to bring back a service for which patrons have been asking — the delivery service.

Any item in the county libraries’ collection is eligible for home delivery, except for the bicycles. Library cardholders can subscribe to a monthly service and have librarians choose content for them, or they can request specific items.

The service is offered to people with an illness, disability, caregiver responsibilities or a lack of transportation.

The libraries have been able to return to their pre-recession hours and are even thinking of expanding hours at some locations, Tepe said.

A push forward

While Athens has the delivery service and even bicycles, other libraries throughout the state have also had new ways to keep people coming through the doors in a digital world.

At Akron libraries, library card holders can check out a Roku stick with a Netflix subscription to watch favorite shows on their home TVs. A wifi-connected personal electronic device is also available for Summit County residents.

In Toledo, borrowers were allowed to use their library cards to get into Costco for a week of shopping that included Black Friday. It’s the second year the library and the wholesale club partnered for the holiday shopping season.

Columbus Metropolitan libraries began offering access to Kanopy, an online video streaming service that provides short half-hour long lectures from college professors on topics like physics, calculus or history. The service typically costs anywhere from $25 to more than $100 for a single lecture series.

Computers with access to the internet are available at library branches. The libraries are looking to add more multimedia devices to the library’s collection, Tepe said.
Computers with access to the internet are available at library branches. The libraries are looking to add more multimedia devices to the library’s collection, Tepe said. Photo by Connor Perrett.

The Athens County Public Libraries do not yet have any multimedia devices that library users can check out, but Tepe said they could be seen in the “not too distant future.”

Athens borrowers can use Hoopla, a streaming service with access to movies, music, audiobooks, ebooks, comics and TV shows. The Athens County libraries offer digital subscriptions to The New York Times at library branches and 72-hour limited access from a cardholder’s home device.

The libraries also offer free technology training by appointment to those who need help using a computer, the internet or other electronic devices.

But even as times change, Gloria Moody, who comes to the Glouster branch not just to type her English papers, but also to volunteer, said there’s people using the library for just a little bit of everything.

“There are a few people who only come here for computer access, and there are a few that only come here for books or the newspaper, but occasionally you see people come for more than one thing,” Moody said. “There’s a couple regulars, and you know what they’re going to do.”

Tepe said for many places in the county, the library is a necessity.

“Especially in our outlying communities, the library is often a central part of that community,” he said. “It’s a place where people come together on neutral ground, to get the information they need to be successful. Whether that’s looking for jobs, connecting with friends and love ones or trying to improve their skills to be more marketable.”

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