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Budget Cuts To Libraries Across The State Highlight Importance Of Public Services

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Taylar Stagner
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Riverton Library is quiet today. And sure, libraries are supposed to be quiet places but right now it's extra quiet. Before COVID-19 heath restrictions the Riverton Library was seeing 450 people on average per day with a staff of ten assistant librarians.

Shari Haskins is the branch manager at Riverton Public Library. "Once we started through the budget cuts and working on our fiscal budget as is for 2021, we had to reduce that staff to four," Shari said. "And with me that makes a staff of five people."

Haskins has been working at the Riverton Library for 22 years. The budget here has been cut by 30 percent, the highest of any library system in the state. While some libraries can use reserves in the interim, next year's budget brings with it a lot of uncertainty. Johnson, Uinta, Lincoln, and Crook counties also took substantial cuts to their budgets.

Jamie Markus is the state librarian in Cheyenne, and he says that normally when the state falls on economic hard times visits to the library go up.

"Our libraries are looking at a rather significant cut next year or mid-year. It just depends on how tax revenue starts to show up," Jamie said.

Libraries can provide free internet that people need when they're out of work to search for jobs.

"It's natural when people lose an income or are looking at a reduced income may cut back services to their home," Markus said. "Be that cable internet or, for goodness sakes, food. So the public library becomes a place for those affected individuals to go to use a public access computer, to visit one of the various programs that will take place in the library to talk about work force service options."

But now with budgets in flux and COVID-19 restrictions, providing these services is becoming tricky. Markus also said that libraries are important because they provide information to relevant health and safety regulations that are in constant upheaval due to COVID-19.

On average per day, 12,500 items were being checked out across the state before COVID. And while some counties have seen an uptick in how many materials are being checked out, due to people staying in, other programming has had to disappear or move online.

If you include the University of Wyoming, community colleges, and public libraries around the state, 60 percent of Wyomingites have a library card where they can access e-books, audiobooks, databases, and curbside assistance to pick up physical materials. But if you don't have access to a device with internet capabilities, Fremont County as well as most other libraries in the state require masks upon entry.

Jacob Mickelsen is the president of the Wyoming Library Association and the director of the Carbon County Public Library.

Mickelsen said, "There is an additional vital service that involves putting people inside our facilities and I think that is the biggest hurdle that we have to overcome until COVID goes away."

He also said it is hard to tally the exact economic boost that a library can provide a community but remains positive about how the future looks for the state's libraries.

"I don't really know how to put a dollar figure on that. Even in times of budget cuts, growth doesn't always mean bigger it could just mean better and I think we are going to come out of this better than ever."

Mickleson added that many counties have upgraded their offerings online and since the librarians across the state stay in constant contact with each other most have found their footing to keep people safe for the next few months.

Back in Riverton, being short staffed has drastically affected the help Haskins and her employees can provide. Fremont County provides library assistance to the surrounding area of Pavilion, Shoshone, and the Wind River Indian Reservation. Haskins said Riverton Library is busy trying to help new patrons apply for COVID-19 stimulus money.

"We are seeing more people who have never been on a computer before. And you can't do anything without an email address," said Haskins. "There's at least one per day and it takes a lot of time to help them. Sometimes two hours."

Haskins said that libraries are needed more than ever as a resource for the Riverton community, and she questions where else people could go for help if the library had to shut its doors again.

 

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