At the Dade Library, manager Marshana Sharp pops "Hop on Popcorn" for the children's reading session in honor of Dr. Seuss's birthday.
When the national publication Library Journal this year named the Dade County Public Library one of the three best small-town libraries in America, an honor accompanied by a $10,000 cash award, one of the reasons it listed for doing so was the love and support the library receives from the Dade community. The website of the Georgia Public Library Service, georgialibraries.com, synopsized it like this:
“…when the library's funding reached rock bottom due to the financial devastation of a trio of tornadoes that swept through the county in April 2011—including one that split open the library's roof and damaged more than 27,000 volumes—the local community raised $52,777 to keep the library open in two temporary homes until local government funding could be restored.” It’s a heartwarming account but one library supporters who lived through that tumultuous period will recognize as breathtakingly revisionist. Yes, the community supports its library and yes, it raised money to keep it open—but it was not the tornadoes that had threatened to close it. The library’s financial devastation was caused not by an act of God but of the Dade County Board of Education.
Certainly the tornadoes of April 27, 2011, tore the roof off the old CVS store where the library was lodged while its permanent building on the Trenton town square was being renovated. But though damages were heavy, the library was insured, and it soon found another temporary home in a storefront on Highway 11 North. It was not until over a year later that “the library’s funding reached rock bottom” and had to be rescued by charity drives. That was in July 2012 when, at the recommendation of then-Superintendent Shawn Tobin, the school board that had hired him voted 4-1 to cut off all support to the library.
Previously, the school system had shared responsibility for the library with the county and the city of Trenton through a decades-old agreement among the three local taxing authorities. With the school system abruptly decamping, the library lost a third of its local funding overnight. Probably the inaccuracy of the Library Service account was inadvertent. As the years pass, one catastrophe bleeds into another, and in any case a county’s library being torpedoed by the county’s board of education was a concept many had difficulty grasping even at the time. But an information handout at the library’s own circulation desk contains a similar statement: “In 2011, a tornado hit Dade County, and the storm’s impact resulted in budget cuts to the library in 2013 and 2014. Yet rather than see the library reduce hours, ‘donations came pouring in, raising $52,777 over a period of two years, until government funding could be restored.’” What? Again, a fund drive spearheaded by Friends of the Dade County Library did generate money, but the library was in fact forced to reduce hours immediately. It laid off staff, including a 20-plus-year veteran, slashed services and closed its doors all but three days a week. And as for restoring government funding, the Board of Education after two years did consent to chip in a fraction of its former share but has never stepped back up with the full amount. One way or the other, with the advent of Dade’s library winning the Library Journal award even as it continues struggling with the funding gap, now seems a good time for an update. What is the state of the library? The answer, according to library manager Marshana Sharp is: Busy. The Planet caught Ms. Sharp bustling around the library on a Thursday morning preparing for the children’s reading hour. It was Dr. Seuss’s birthday, she explained, and she was making “Hop on Popcorn” in a fire-engine red cinema-sized popper bought for the library by its Friends group. The Ready to Read program this morning, and a Family Connection working lunch session later, would swell numbers today, said Ms. Sharp, but attendance was already high every day the library was open. “It’s 2- and 300 a day,” she said. Besides checking out books and videos—an average of 35 items an hour, said Ms. Sharp—the library furnishes 32 public computers that stay consistently busy and also features a new “innovation station” with 3D printer and Wacom tablets. Additionally, patrons may now use library technology to convert their old VHS tapes, hard-copy photographs, slides or film negatives to digital versions at the library. “It’s kind of self-serve,” said Ms. Sharp. “We don’t have the staff. We furnish the equipment, we point you in the direction and kind of head you that way and then you kind of have to do it on your own.” The library is offering a free two-day course on those processes. The first was Feb. 27 and the second will be this Saturday, March 5, from noon-2 p.m. The workshop is part of the library’s “Merging Technologies and Art Series,” which will continue on March 19 with “Paint Your Own Masterpiece,” taught by local artist Ann Keaton, and a poetry workshop on April 23 taught by Ginnie Sams. The library has more community programs in the gestation process, including some to be paid for with the $10,000 from the Library Journal award. These include a health fair, a child abuse awareness run and some kind of initiative to be announced later working with inmates of the county jail on job training and/or life skills. Some of the award funds will be used on new books, particularly nonfiction and children’s books. The library currently receives no new-book money from the state, says Ms. Sharp says, though she hopes that Georgia will include some in its new budget. The library also offers job fairs, games, movies, meeting space, proctoring, tax preparation help and many other services, said Ms. Sharp. “We’re not a warehouse of books,” she said. “We’re a lot more.” Staff-wise, the library now has no full-timers. Ms. Sharp comes closest at 35 hours a week, and there are two 19-hour employees and one at 26. Among them they manage to keep the library open 30 hours a week, down from the 45 of the good years but up from the 25 they managed before the city of Trenton upped its funding, allowing the library to resume Saturday hours. The library is now open Tuesdays 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; Thursdays 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Fridays 9 a.m.-4 p.m.; and Saturdays 10 a.m.-2 p.m. As to local funding, here are the present figures, supplied by Lecia Eubanks, director of Cherokee Regional, the Georgia Public Library group of which Dade’s library is a branch: Dade County pays $69,500 up from $64,800 in 2012, the last year the library was fully funded; Trenton pays $48,000, up from $25,000 in 2012; and the Board of Education kicks in $10,500, way down from the $37,726 of FY2012 but way up from the $0 it contributed in 2013 and 2014. “Depending on funding agencies, we don’t know what our budget is from year to year,” said Ms. Sharp. “We’re hoping when times get better we can get an increase and open more hours, but right now we’re glad to be open the 30 that we are.” If more money does come in, she says: “Our first goal would be to have a full-time children’s person.” She would also like to resume programs for teen readers, she added. Will that ever happen? Ms. Eubanks at Cherokee Regional said the library would continue to petition the Dade County Board of Education to resume full support. The school system now has a new superintendent, and three of the five board of education seats are up for election this year.