ST. JOHNSBURY — The historic St. Johnsbury Athenæum is laying off its staff and rehiring some in an effort to reduce costs, end drastic withdrawals from its endowment and halt budget deficits.
The move, announced Dec. 3, gave staffers 60 days’ notice and will reduce the number of employees from 15 to nine. The previous arrangement included 11 part-timers, but the new arrangement will be mostly full-timers.
In response, a group of fellow library workers has arranged an assembly outside the Athenæum today.
The library’s move raised concern among several librarians elsewhere: one from the Northeast Kingdom, another from Rutland and the rest in Chittenden County.
“We really just hope to bring awareness to the issue to demonstrate the people make the library,” said one of the organizers, University of Vermont librarian Amber Billey. “A library is more than bricks and mortar and books on shelves.”
Today at noon, supporters will hold hands around the historic structure. A similar action nearly two years ago at the New York Public Library in Manhattan prompted the city to reconsider significant staffing cuts. More than 50 people plan to attend today’s event, based on postings in a Facebook group.
State Librarian Martha Reid said the restructuring in St. Johnsbury is unique in the state.
“Certainly it echoes what we’re seeing across the country,” she said.
Reid said Vermont’s libraries are mostly in small towns, which can bring them in conflict with municipal budgets.
The St. Johnsbury library is a private nonprofit that received about 17 percent of its budget for operations in 2011 from the town.
Budget deficits for the library have been routine for the last 10-plus years, and it has had to draw as much as 20 percent of its endowment, significantly higher than its recommended withdrawal rate of 4.5 percent, said the library’s executive director, Matthew Powers, on Friday. The endowment stands at about $2 million.
“We’re finding that with a bad economy people are having a hard time justifying giving to a lot of different organizations, and so everybody is feeling the crunch across the board,” Powers said.
As part of the restructuring, eight librarian positions will turn into four positions with library functions. Existing staff will be given hiring priority, and the library is offering settlement packages, according to a Dec. 12 letter the library distributed.
As libraries have reduced operating hours and staff schedules in recent years, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Public Library Association have taken notice and responded with funding. For Vermont, a program called Turning the Page 2.0 consequently was developed, helping librarians learn how to better engage communities and draw increased support.
Trustees of the St. Johnsbury Athenæum had a retreat in 2009 that helped steer the library toward sustainability, and hours for part-time staffers were reduced in 2011, Powers said. Trustees mandated last year that the library have a balanced budget by Jan. 1, 2015.
As part of the changing landscape, the library is working to secure more grants and provide more programming as well as revamping its Internet capabilities, making the facility completely wireless and providing high-speed access, Powers said.
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