Mashpee Public Library Staffing Debate Simmers
By: Elsa H. Partan
On a Tuesday afternoon, five people are in line at the Mashpee Public Library circulation desk. A young man taps his pants pocket as he waits to pick up a book and a woman hoists 12 hardcover books onto the desk for checkout.
Richard F. Boyden of Mashpee attempts the self-service checkout station, but even that machine requires a bit of help from a library employee.
“Sometimes there’s only one person behind the desk here,” Mr. Boyden said.
When asked how many people he thinks the library needs in order to function, he guesses five.
In fact, the Mashpee Public Library has opened with as few as three workers in the past few months, but it cannot serve customers properly without at least four, according to M. Bridget Bontrager, the interim library director. That still leaves the staff doing “triage librarianship,” she said, a phrase that brings to mind a hospital emergency room, where patients are treated based on the severity of their injuries.
“It means we are dealing with what is immediately in front of us,” she said, while planning falls by the wayside for the full-time staff of five. “It has curtailed our ability to do adult programming and improve our special collections. It takes time to do that thoughtfully and provide the best of what is available.”
It is easy to see how the emergency room could get backed up. Beyond the circulation desk sits a plastic container about the size of a recycling bin for book returns. Seven to 12 of these bins containing up to 30 books come through the doors each day. The books have to be put away or sent off to their home libraries.
Library staffing has become a contentious issue since the new, 21,000-square-foot library was completed last April, replacing a building that was four times smaller. As all town department budgets shrank in the last few years, the library was able to keep its current staff, but not add any. A lack of staff forced the library to close on Fridays throughout February and caused one emergency closure on Saturday, February 12.
Mashpee is hardly alone. On Monday, Yarmouth selectmen contemplated cutting the hours at the West Yarmouth Library from 25 to 15 a week. Sandwich cut off two months of Sunday hours from its usual winter offering last year, and Falmouth has cut staff hours and library hours in an effort to meet its budget.
The hardship comes at a time when the Mashpee library has seen a 46 percent increase in the number of books in circulation in the last year, precipitated by excitement over the new building. It issued 2,300 new library cards compared to just 750 the year before. The increased demand has set up a fight between library advocates who say that the town is placing unfair expectations on an overworked staff, and budget hawks, who say there is no public appetite to increase taxes to hire more workers.
It has also exposed a difference in philosophy between the two camps. One side argues that if volunteers can be trained to do the work, taxpayers should be spared the expense of hiring staff. The other side sees library science as a complex set of tasks that should be performed by experts—the best way to serve a profoundly important part of American democracy.
“I was getting a haircut the other day, and a stylist asked me why we don’t just bring on more volunteers,” Ms. Bontrager said. “I asked her, ‘If you were down two stylists, would you bring on two volunteers?’ ”
But New England is full of villages that entrust saving their citizens’ homes to volunteer fire departments, demonstrating a kind of do-it-yourself sensibility that comes across in comments from Selectman Michael R. Richardson.
“Even barber shops have trainees,” he said in a phone interview this week. “I’m of the opinion that volunteers can do 95 percent of the work, and they think volunteers can do 50 percent of the work. Maybe my percentages are off a bit, but you get the idea.”
When Mr. Richardson heard that the library staff was so overwhelmed with new customers that they did not have time to train volunteers, he set out to fill the gap himself.
For the last several months, he has been writing an in-depth manual based on training he received from Circulation Assistant Janet M. Trask. The result will be a PowerPoint presentation with photographs to illustrate how to reshelve books, for example. Mr. Richardson hopes to show his PowerPoint slides once a week to library volunteers beginning in mid-April.
“I think they are going to be surprised with what the volunteers can do,” Mr. Richardson said.
Putting books back on shelves is a good use of volunteers, but many library tasks are too complex or important for volunteers to take on, Ms. Bontrager said. For example, when a newly purchased book arrives, keywords must be entered into a database to allow the book to be found in searches. A book will disappear from the system if the wrong words are entered.
Some time-consuming duties require a great degree of judgment, Ms. Bontrager said. Every two weeks, a pile of library journals and book review magazines arrives on her desk—publications that help her decide which new items to purchase. One of those magazines, called Booklist, takes about four hours to read, she said. It falls to the librarians to spend the library’s $47,600 new materials budget wisely on a list of things that include downloadable e-books, music CDs, DVDs, Wii games, documentaries, periodicals, and old-fashioned books, she said.
“We have specialized knowledge of both the library and the community,” she said. “We are unique in that our ideal client is anyone from an infant to the most advanced senior citizen and we are charged with offering a collection to meet the diverse needs of this area.”
For Children’s Librarian Janet Burke, the new building has allowed her to dramatically increase the number of programs for children. That is because she could offer more space to program presenters such as Rosemary Modic, who moved all her supplies to the ample storage closets in the children’s wing. The programs boosted her book circulation, creating a huge challenge when the new library first opened and she was the only worker.
“I needed roller skates,” she said. “People were checking books in and out, and I was trying to supervise the computers at the same time. I couldn’t do story time and do all the other things. We really needed help.”
The situation is better now. Two part-time trainees from the federal Mature Worker Program have helped to lighten the work as well as a temporary library worker that Ms. Burke was able to hire, thanks to an arrangement between the library trustees and selectmen. In January, selectmen agreed to allow the three part-time workers for 12 weeks, paid for out of a $24,800 library donation fund held by the town, as well as monetary support from the Friends of Mashpee Public Library.
With the help of the temporary workers, Ms. Burke said she can begin to think about the areas she has neglected. For example, she used to go into the school each fall to talk to 1st graders and make sure that each one had a library card. She can also contemplate doing story time at preschools in town, which used to be a standard offering. If the staffing holds, she may be able to go to professional development seminars, which have been off-limits because she was unable to leave the building during library hours.
Even with the difficulties of the last year, the 13-year veteran of the Mashpee Public Library does not want anyone to think she is complaining.
“I just love my job,” she said. “I love the Children’s Room.”
Leave a Reply
In order to comment you need to be logged in.