PITTSFIELD, Maine — Reduced hours and changes to the Pittsfield Public Library’s operations could have unintended consequences to residents who use it for more than books if the town council chooses to slash its budget.
The library — which was built in 1903 thanks to a $15,000 grant from the Andrew Carnegie Foundation, $10,000 match from townspeople and $5,000 from the late Robert Dobson’s estate — is primarily funded through local property taxes. It serves Pittsfield, Burnham, Detroit and Palmyra. Patrons use it for a variety of services, including space and internet access for telehealth appointments and programming that aids people with their resumes, Director Holly Williams said.
The library’s budget came before the Pittsfield Town Council at an Oct. 18 meeting, where members discussed possible ways to cut costs and agreed to revisit the conversation Tuesday, Nov. 1, when more information would be available.
In small, rural Maine towns, the fate of a longtime public library means a great deal to patrons who rely on the building and its staff for essential services. Not only do they visit for books, but it’s a place to access computers and printing, receive help while applying for unemployment benefits and jobs, hold meetings and much more, Williams said.
“This is a safe place for people to come,” she said. “We have kids who come here after school, but also seniors who come to spend time with other people. Just yesterday, a person asked me to help them print what they needed to get their stimulus check. We do so much with social services here, and maybe folks don’t realize that.”
For next year, the library’s budget is set at just more than $216,000, Williams said. Only fixed costs — heat and electricity, building maintenance and staff salaries — have increased in the last 20 years, she said.
The library’s budget for books, newspapers, movies and other items has remained largely unchanged at about $16,000 since 2002, even though the cost of materials has risen, she said.
At the meeting Oct. 18, Deputy Mayor Peter Logiodice suggested reducing Saturday hours to save on heat and electricity expenses. Although Saturday is the slowest day, the heat doesn’t kick on until the building opens to patrons, Williams said.
The library is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. It is closed on Saturdays during July and August.
Councilor Jason Hall proposed reducing staff members’ hours and wondered whether the library could function as a nonprofit independent from the town. Councilors may have to propose ideas that won’t make people happy, but each department needs to be scrutinized, he said.
“We have a town office that’s not open to the public 43 hours a week,” he said. “Do we need a library open to the public 43 hours a week? That’s a legit question that not just me, but a lot of residents, have.”
Although data wasn’t available during the meeting, the library saw an average of 62 daily patrons this year, Williams said Thursday. Mondays and Thursdays are the busiest days, with an average of 82 people and 75 people visiting, respectively, through Oct. 15, according to library data.
Cutting hours means reducing access to services that people rely on in their daily lives, including space to work and find work, Williams said. The library has a space for telecommuters and even a grant-funded recovery resources center where patrons can access materials on dealing with substance use disorder.
“I take it personally not only because it’s something that I love, but I really love this community,” said Williams, who acknowledged there is only so much money to go around. “When you start to cut services from the library, you’re hurting the people. I don’t see how it’s helping anyone.”
Eliminating Saturday hours would mean cutting part-time staff by 20 percent, the director said. The library’s two part-time employees work 15 hours a week and reducing that to 12 hours would make staff retention nearly impossible, she said.
When Alicia J. Nichols was looking to buy a house in 2013, her family chose Pittsfield for the library, school system and Sebasticook Valley Hospital — institutions that make for a strong and caring community, she said.
Public libraries aren’t just books anymore, but vital community centers that provide free access to a broad range of materials and services, she said. They aren’t businesses or revenue generators, and taxpayers have a responsibility to support the library, she said.
Nichols plans to attend the next Pittsfield Town Council meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 1. She created a Facebook event to encourage friends and neighbors to join, and since she learned about the Pittsfield library discussion, she has asked community members to contact councilors and spread the word.
The library was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, according to its website. One of the building’s unique features is its central dome, which has a colorful interior mural, called Reading: the Gateway to Imagination, painted the same year by Maine humorist Tim Sample. There are Pittsfield residents depicted in the mural who have returned years later to see themselves.