By Jeff Wolfe: The East Greenwich Library has a long and rich past, helping fill the lives of many in its township for over 60 years. But just what its future will be, or if it even has a future, remains uncertain.
The library that was born from the dream of a 12-year-old girl scout in Clarksboro in 1951 could become a memory by as early as Jan. 31, 2014. The Gloucester County Library System board announced earlier this year that it no longer wished to have the East Greenwich Library as part of its six-library network.
East Greenwich Library Association president Susan Breen believes the exit from the GCLS has been in the works for a while.
“As some of you may remember, the EGLA Board asked to become a GCLS ‘branch’ in 2008 because
we believed that this affiliation would result in a better library for residents,” Breen wrote in a letter to local residents. “Our gut feeling now is that the Commission entered into an agreement to make EGL a branch in 2009 with less than good intentions. During the last three years, the actions of the Commission and those of the GCLS director would indicate that they never intended to make EGL a viable branch within the system. Had we known that our good intentions would not be reciprocated we would have chosen to continue operating the library on a shoestring budget.”
The East Greenwich Library sits at the corner of Kings Highway and Quaker Road in Mickleton in the Berkley Building, which is leased from the East Greenwich Board of Education for $1 per year. The GCLS says since adding the East Greenwich branch in 2009 that it has spent over $150,000 in building-related costs.
And there are more building-related costs that will be needed in the near future if the East Greenwich branch remains open. The two primary issues appear to be a leaking roof in the front corner of the building and making the bathroom facilities comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Breen said the building’s condition was made clear to the GCLS officials when the East Greenwich branch applied to become a member.
“It is true that much work needs to be done on the building, a fact that I meticulously outlined for the former GCLS director before an agreement was reached in 2009,” Breen said in her letter.
Just when that work needs to be done and how much it costs is one of the central concerns. In a report at the East Greenwich Township meeting on July 23rd, the East Greenwich Board of Education reported that its architects estimated the current building would need between $1.6 and $1.8 million worth of repairs. That number was staggering to Breen. However, the township committee is looking for a more specific report that would allow for building repairs and upgrades to be made over a period of a few years.
“No one has envisioned that we are going to have to put $1.6 million into it,” Breen said after the July 23rdmeeting. “We’ve worked with this building for 15 years and many of these are not things that will hurt anybody. But there are some things that do need to be taken care of right away, such as a leaky roof.”
Breen and the township committee are hoping the board of education will have a breakdown of what repairs would be considered more urgent and which ones could be done over time for the Aug. 14 township committee meeting.
“It will depend on what the board of education finds out on what things are essential to do right away,” Breen said. “That could tell the whole story. I am optimistic and we feel perhaps it will be doable. We already have a long-range plan.”
Breen’s immediate plan is to have the East Greenwich Library to stay open by returning to independent status. This, however, can only be done through a referendum vote at a public election. She hopes to have the library referendum on the Nov. 5 election ballot, which will be part of the discussion at the Aug. 14 township committee meeting. The township committee must vote on whether to allow the referendum on the ballot or not.
If the referendum is on the ballot and East Greenwich residents vote “yes,” the East Greenwich Library would eventually become an independent branch again. If residents vote “no,” the library would close and residents would be asked to use the closest libraries in Greenwich Township, Swedesboro or the main branch in Mullica Hill.
If the residents do vote “yes” there would be a two-year transition period where the East Greenwich branch would be an associate library of the GCLS with no change to any procedures to have services. After that two-year period, East Greenwich residents would need to get a library card at the East Greenwich branch, which then could be used with 20-other LOGIN member libraries throughout Gloucester, Salem and Cumberland counties, which includes all of the libraries in the GCLS.
The GCLS website says that “residents of LOGIN municipalities (but who do not live within the GCLS service area) will need to visit their municipal library to obtain a library card. This card will be honored at GCLS libraries.”
The other service issue becoming more important as technology advances is the availability of online books for patrons who like to read books on computer-based tablets. Breen said the East Greenwich Library would pay to be a member of a state-wide service that would include a research database as well as downloadable books. Breen also said that being a member of LOGIN would allow youths to attend events at the Mullica Hill Library, such as Beyblade or Pokemon tournaments.
“We would maintain memberships with LOGIN, ebooks and databases,” Breen said. “The residents would have access to all those books as they do now. I know that would be a concern of the residents. I was pleasantly surprised that we would be able to keep the same access.”
But maybe the most surprising part of the issue is that East Greenwich residents would have to pay slightly less to keep that access. In 2013, the 9,555 households in East Greenwich will pay the EGLS $471,456 in library taxes. If East Greenwich had its own library, the total taxes would be reduced to $343,437, according to Breen.
Another reason the GCLS wants to shudder the East Greenwich Library is a lack of patronage. According to the GCLS documents, 65 percent of library card holders with an East Greenwich zip code selected a branch other than East Greenwich as their home library. Also, in 2012 more than 46,000 items were checked out to East Greenwich residents at branches other than East Greenwich, which was more than three times the circulation at the East Greenwich branch.
The documents also note that attendance at the East Greenwich branch was the lowest of any branch in the system each year from 2009 through 2012.
But Breen says that’s the result of poor marketing and reduced hours, which has the East Greenwich branch open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and 1 to 8 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday. While East Greenwich is open 35 hours per week, the total open hours per week for the other branches in the GCLS are Mullica Hill at 59,Greenwich, Glassboro and Logan each at 55 and Newfield at 49.
“We have not been getting as much use in the last four years,” Breen said. “It has been a steady decline. When you have reduced hours and have your hours cut in half, of course the circulation is going to go down. And programs boost numbers, too. We are confident once we are back on track with the hours and programming, things will pick up.”
The hours for the East Greenwich Library first began when it opened in a little shed behind the Clarksboro market at the corner of Kings Highway and Cohawkin Road on Feb. 23, 1952, according to Breen, with then Girl Scout leader Gretchen Peirce as its president. After a few years the library’s contents began to outgrow its shed, so in 1962 Emma Engle, a certified state librarian, offered to share part of her house across the street at the corner of Cohawkin and Kings Highway.
The library remained in her house until moving to the Berkley Building in March of 1999. The library was operated on a small budget before joining the GCLS in 2009.
Whether the library will continue to operate in the future will depend first on the township committee, and then possibly the East Greenwich voters.