Libraries across the state are due to receive an influx of funding after nearly a decade of neglect. Sixty percent of voters across the state voted in favor of a ballot measure to approve the New Jersey Library Construction Bond Act, which will borrow $125 million for capital improvements to libraries.
NJ last approved new borrowing for library facilities in 1999, when 68 projects were funded with $45 million from bonds. Revenue from the bonds will be dispersed in grants to fund 50 percent of the cost of a library capital project. The balance must be matched either by local government or privatesources.Since the ballot initiative passed, NJ’s state librarian will work with Thomas Edison College to draft eligibility requirements for a grant program. The text of the ballot measure read, “The grants will be used to build, equip, and expand public libraries to increase capacity and serve the public.”
Librarians in Hudson County are largely in agreement that libraries need new technology, facility upgrades, and programming that meets the needs of residents. Those sentiments are consistent with a recent survey of NJ librarians, half of whom said expanded facilities are necessary to keep up with demand.
The last decade, shaped by an economic recession and society’s embrace of the digital age, has changed the role libraries play in communities. Aside from educational programming and book circulation that libraries are traditionally known for, many residents now use the facilities for job resources, internet access, and entertainment, and meeting spaces.Some have citizenship courses and ESL training, while others, like Secaucus, has a maker space. Despite libraries’ popularity, library budgets were among the first that legislators gutted after the housing and stock market collapsed in 2008.
The needs of local libraries
Sneh Bains, Director of the Bayonne Public Library, said new funds would “help tremendously.” Until eligibility requirements are released in the coming weeks, libraries will not know what kinds of capital improvements will be feasible. Those funds are still nothing to sneeze at for directors who have overseen largely flat budgets in the last decade.
At the Bayonne Public Library, computers are limited, and the ones available often have outdated hardware and software, which limit residents’ ability to access the resources they need. Bains also said that despite as much investment in new technology as its budget can afford, investments in programming, new computers, wi-fi, and professional staff are wanting. While some of that cannot come through capital improvement grants, taking the pressure off the rest of the library’s budget can help.
Like other libraries in the county, Bayonne’s is limited in space and plans to rearrange furniture to make way for meetings space and children’s group activities, an increasingly popular service in libraries across the board.
“We had the idea of adding more meeting space, and looking at either renovating or expanding,” said Secaucus Public Library Director Jennifer May. Additions and renovations may qualify for the grant program, but until May sees the terms, she won’t know for sure.
During a recent trip touring California libraries, Bains marveled at the libraries’ new computers, strong wi-fi signals that reach every wing of the building, and professional library staff that develops library programming, an area that Bains emphasizes.
Jam-packed in Union City and West New York
The same cannot be said in Union City, where Library Director Rita Mann said the city’s two libraries are overcrowded.
“Come in after 3 o’clock,and you’ll see exactly what I mean,” said Mann, noting long waiting lists for students who want to use one of the library’s 105 computers. “Because the population of Union City is large and growing, I think that in order to accommodate all the children and adults who need the library, we are going to need to build another library at some point.”
Mann calls for more computers and more space for conferences and children’s programs. Books are a lower priority for libraries since book circulation never recovered from its peak before the advent of the internet.
“We don’t know exactly where changes are going to take us,” said Mann. “Will it eliminate print, or become virtual? Maybe we will have more ebooks than print books.”
The neighboring West New York Public Library experiences similar space constraints and community demands. Visitors may have to wait for meeting space or to use one of the library’s 40 computers.
“A lot of people thought 15 years ago that libraries would go out of existence. Now they’re in use more than ever.” Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner
Jersey City, Hoboken, and Weehawken went the renovation route
Libraries across the county might take a cue from libraries in Jersey City, Secaucus, and Hoboken. Residents there can access magazines and publications digitally, as well as movies, music, audiobooks, and documentaries with their library cards.
“A lot of people thought 15 years ago that libraries would go out of existence,” said Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner. “Now they’re in use more than ever.”
The Weehawken Public Library, a former mansion built in the mid-1800s and financed by a German aristocrat who fled the violent throes of a German revolution, has fewer immediate capital needs than other libraries after a full renovation in 1997.
The first floor of the Jersey City Public Library main branch recently reopened amid a $15 million renovation project that will incorporate ADA accessible design, restoring the building’s terrazzo tile, and replacing an elevator and windows.
The Hoboken Public Library recently constructed a new lower level that will house small and large program rooms, a reading garden, and new bathrooms with grants received from the New Jersey Historic Trust and matched by the City of Hoboken, Sandi Grant, and Hudson County Open Space Program.
More than books in North Bergen
North Bergen offers further proof of libraries’ popularity. Four years after the opening of its newest branch, the township is now in negotiations to purchase more land downtown for another branch downtown. At the four-year anniversary of the township’s newest branch, Police Chief Robert Dowd said, “It’s not a library that people would think of conventionally, 20, 30 years ago, where there were just shelves of books. This is more of a cultural center. When you think of things the library does, they run all these great programs and inspire thought and cultural awareness, and they have different platforms other than just conventional books.”
Rory Pasquariello can be reached at email@example.com.