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Explainer: How NJ’s Public Libraries Are Faring in the Information Age

The state’s libraries still come through with books, but patrons also can access digital media like music and ebooks, as well as share new technologies

New Brunswick public library

New Jersey’s history has been written by and in libraries for just about as long as there’s been a New Jersey. In fact, the patron of the first library in the state — built in 1789 in Burlington — was Ben Franklin’s son William.

With the advent of the Internet — and concerns that information resources will move completely online in coming years — some have predicted the demise of libraries. But many institutions are thriving as they work to maintain (or increase) attendance through community programming and greater computer integration. And while libraries seem like straightforward enterprises, there’s a lot that goes on behind the front desk — another example of not judging a book by its cover.

Where do all the books come from? According to state law, libraries must initially purchase a minimum of 8,000 volumes or one volume for every person in the town they serve. After that they must buy at least 1/10 of a book per capita every year. So if there are 10,000 people in a town, the library has to buy at least 1,000 books every year. This total may also includes CDs, videos, magazines, and other materials.

Some libraries across county systems and municipal branches also share resources through online databases and partnerships that allow lenders to use their library cards at multiple locations.

What the heck is the State Library? The New Jersey State Library has two main functions: It supplies public libraries with free marketing and library law advice, data analytics, and help setting up Internet access. It also serves as a research library for legislators and universities.

Why should you care? According to Bob Keith, the data coordinator at the New Jersey State Library, library structure and law may seem boring to civilians, but they help ensure that patrons are getting the most out of their local libraries.

“It’s stuff that comes up really rarely but when it does it’s important to know,” Keith said. “Libraries aren’t just departments of the towns or the counties they’re in, they are independent and they do have people there that are working, doing the best to help people get the information they need.”

Different types of public libraries: New Jersey has 234 municipal libraries, five joint libraries, 14 county libraries, and 45 association libraries. Municipal, joint municipal, and county libraries are all formed through ballot referendums (except for Cumberland and Morris counties). Association libraries are set up as nonprofits in towns where residents couldn’t (or didn’t) pass a referendum.

Municipal libraries serve one municipality and can have several branches. Joint municipal libraries come into play when two or more small towns share resources and one library. County libraries serve the whole county, although most will also have stand-alone libraries.

Some 61 percent of New Jerseyans are served by a municipal library, 35 percent by a county library; 3 percent use an association library; and 1 percent use a joint municipal library.

Because public libraries are formed through referendums, they also have to be dissolved through a ballot referendum.

Who runs these things? Municipal and joint municipal libraries require that the mayor or other chief executive officer, and the superintendent of schools, serve as members of the board of trustees and have a vote in all library actions. Term limits are five years.

In county library systems, there are usually five or seven members serving on the board (commission). A majority of the commissioners must be residents of local municipalities.

The boards are tasked with staffing libraries. They can hire and fire without having to run their decisions by the municipality (other than the mayor and superintendent who serve on the board).

How are public libraries funded? Because they are public entities, libraries receive money from the state and must adhere to certain standards, like size and number of books, and are required to have an annual audit to ensure they are complying with state regulations.

Almost all public libraries are funded according to equalized valuation of all property in the towns they serve, not just residential properties. New Jersey law sets the minimum funding limit for municipal libraries at what they call “1/3 mill.” This works out to $0.33 on each $1,000 of equalized value of the property, but currently more than half the libraries in the state are funded above this amount, according to the NJLA. For county libraries, that minimum is set at 1/15 mill (about $6.66 per $100,000) on the "apportionment valuation.” The NJLA reports that all county libraries are funded above this amount.

Because library funding is tied to property values, it has taken a hit in the past few years as a result of the great recession. Keith said 2015 was the first year he saw an uptick in equalized valuation since the stock market crashed. He’s still crunching this year’s numbers, but remains hopeful that library funding will continue to increase.

Public libraries can use their state funds however they like, with no input from the state or town (again, with the exception of the town officials serving on the library board of trustees).

Association libraries are funded at the municipality’s discretion which means it’s possible for them to receive nothing from local governments.

Other funding sources come from costs to patrons like late fines, photocopy fees, as well as interest and donations. Public libraries are also able to apply for grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, New Jersey Historical Commission, National Endowment for the Arts (Big Reads), and others.

The future of libraries: Library attendance has dipped slightly over the past few years. In 2015, according to state data, 43,073,784 people visited them, down from 44,828,878 in 2014 and 45,845,465 in 2013. The New Jersey State Library is focused on streamlining library services and leveraging funds to keep local libraries relevant in the 21st century.

Pat Tumulty of the New Jersey Library Association said libraries are more than just buildings full of books. They’ve become community centers where New Jerseyans can come together for authors’ talks, preschool story hours and “Makerspaces” that let people share new technologies.

“Libraries are so beyond books right now,” Tumulty said.“We see ourselves expanding in many ways — certainly we’ve embraced the technology changes — but there is still a sense of need for a community place and that’s the role of the library.”

The State Library has also started counting electronic media in its tally of new volumes, meaning that an annual purchase of 1,000 volumes would include ebooks, music, and other media.

Challenges facing libraries: “There are so many more options and you want to have them available because people are reading and accessing information in such a variety of ways that they didn’t do a few years ago. It’s a wonderful thing but a challenge.” Tumulty said.

According to Tumulty, many librarians pride themselves on knowing their communities, which makes some of those decisions a bit easier. In New Jersey, where large numbers of people speak a language other than English, it’s up to librarians to ensure that other languages receive proper representation on the shelves.

In 2014, the NJLA conducted a Capital Improvement Survey that reported construction deficiencies in libraries statewide. According to its findings, 45 percent of facilities were not ADA-compliant (lacked ramps and elevators, needed restroom upgrades); 60 percent needed additional square footage; and 49 percent required electrical upgrades.

To update library buildings across the state, Tumulty and the NJLA have filed bills in the Assembly and Senate (A-222/S-2171) proposing $125,000,000 in “general obligation bonds to finance capital projects.” The money would come more than 15 years after the previous Public Library Construction Bond Act which provided $45 million. The bill is currently in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

“We are looking to get that [bond] again because libraries need to be reconfigured for the electronic age.” Tumulty said. “We have so many more computers and buildings built years ago are not fitted to be a modern library.”

Carly Sitrin is a former editorial intern at NJ Spotlight.

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