New Jersey lawmakers, seeking to help public libraries stay relevant, are pushing for additional funding for new building and technology upgrades to lure people to visit for more services than just books to take home.
A bill that would provide grants to build, expand, or equip public libraries across the state won approval this week from an Assembly committee, and supporters hope to fast-track the measure and put it before voters on the November ballot. If approved, it would mark the first time in 15 years that such funding would be available for New Jersey’s public libraries.
Known as the “New Jersey Library Construction Bond Act,” the bill would authorize the issuance of $125 million in bonds. The money would be used to finance 50 percent of a project, with the other half coming from the local government.
“Some might question the relevance of libraries when technology is so prevalent, but for one, not everyone has access to technology, and secondly, libraries are more than just a place to get books,” Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D., Mercer) said in a statement. “They are gathering places. They are places where people can get college prep and career assistance. Given the value of libraries and what they provide our communities, it would be irresponsible not to invest in their viability.”
Faced with declining state aid, there is a demonstrated need for the funding, said Pat Tumulty, who heads the New Jersey Library Association. County and local governments cannot afford to solely bear the cost to build or repair public libraries, she said.
“This is a priority for our association,” Tumulty said Wednesday. “We need this now.”
According to the association, state funding for library programs has been reduced for the last seven years under Gov. Christie. It requested a $3 million increase — to just over $7 million — in the 2018 proposed state budget, but that seems unlikely. New Jersey ranks 34th in the nation for state aid to local public libraries, the association says.
“We haven’t really kept that investment up. Some libraries have been forced to shutter or reduce their hours due to a lack of funding. This is a disservice to residents who rely on their local libraries for a variety of services,” said Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D., Burlington), also a sponsor of the measure.
Tumulty said public libraries remain popular despite the increasing use of the internet and electronic books. Many libraries have become community centers that offer everything from job-search and resumé-writing training to computer classes, she said.
Last year, there were more than 44 million visits to the state’s 300 public libraries, according to the association.
According to a 2016 Pew Research study, 76 percent of Americans said public libraries do a good job of serving the needs of their communities. But Pew also reported a decline in library visits, with only 44 percent of adults saying they had visited a library or bookmobile in the previous year.
“There’s a great need for public libraries,” Tumulty said. “We’re not fearful that our libraries will be done away with any time soon.”
After the last Public Library Construction Bond Act was approved 15 years ago, 68 communities, including several in South Jersey, built libraries or renovated facilities. They included Willingboro, Pemberton, Bordentown, and Vineland. Also getting grants from the previous bond were the Greenwich branch of the Gloucester County Library and the Franklin Township Library, also in Gloucester County.
Cherry Hill built its 72,0000-square-foot new library on Kings Highway in 2005. The library has a children’s room, computer lab, and meeting spaces. Last year, it had 590,000 visits, and special events such as a lecture Wednesday night by author George Anastasia fill up quickly, said Laverne Mann, executive director.
“We are a model of what can be done,” Mann said. “There is just so little capital money from towns. That’s why we desperately need bond acts like this.”
Tumulty said the bill had widespread bipartisan support in both houses. Senate approval is pending. The association has launched a campaign asking the public to lobby lawmakers and local officials for support.
There is no indication whether Christie would support the measure. It cleared the Assembly Appropriations Committee and Singleton hopes the full Assembly will consider it before the legislative session ends June 30. It would go before voters for approval in November.
If the bond is approved, the state librarian, in consultation with the president of Thomas Edison State College, would determine the criteria and come up with a list of eligible projects.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Mann said. “We need a win for New Jersey libraries.”