Library patrons take funding issues personally

Published 1:48 am Sunday, October 3, 2010

NATCHEZ — A group of people in Natchez dabble daily among the bookshelves and keyboards at the Armstrong Library, so much so that they blend in the scene like the smell of old dust.

And when the regulars were interrupted from peacefully checking titles or crouching over a computer with earbuds to discuss the library’s budget cuts — the helpless, reproachful look in their eyes suggested the issue is a personal one.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” said Ricky Minor about the library’s budget cuts.

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The City of Natchez recently reduced the library’s millage rate from 2.575 mills in 2008 to 2.25 mills in 2010.

The millage rate should mean $255,000 in funding, the same amount the library received last year, but less than Director Susan Cassagne believes the city had told her she would get this year.

In response to a smaller-than planned budget, hours and staffing have been cut and fees and fines increased.

For Minor, the library is not just a place to watch his favorite shows online or check out the latest fantasy fiction book.

He said the library kind of feels like home.

“I don’t know how you explain it, I just feel very comfortable here.” Minor said.

Minor, 20, does not have Internet access or a working phone line at his Natchez house where he lives with his aunt, but with the library walking distance from his job as a dish washer at King’s Tavern, he is there just about every day it’s open.

It is the people, too, who make the library so important to Minor.

“They’re like family,” Minor said of the staff at the library.

Minor also claims to be the No. 1 volunteer at the library. He proudly motioned toward the carpet and explained he helped replace it.

Minor wants to be a writer and an actor, and he said he gets much of his inspiration during the time he spends at the library.

Minor said not many people his age hang out at the library, but it is where he finds peace.

And when discussing budget cuts, Minor struggles not to feel defeated.

“I feel kind of upset, but it’s out of my hands,” Minor said.

“But all I can do is pray things get better and have faith.”

While Minor spends most of his time on the computer, many frequent patrons use the library the old fashioned way.

Friday afternoon, Debra Vanier roamed around the first floor and picked out two books, even though she already had three checked out at her house.

Vanier said she probably checks out an average of 10 books a week and swings by the library to freshen up her stash up to four days a week.

“I’m a natural speed reader.

I can read this is two hours,” she said holding up a 300-plus hardback.

Vanier said she mostly likes mysteries, but enjoys reading every genre except horror. And she does it so often that the library is the only place to nurse her hobby.

“I’d have to spend my entire paycheck on books if I didn’t use the library,” Vanier said.

Vanier, a paralegal at Pintard and Pintard, said she has also passed down her love for the library to her 12-year-old son.

When asked to discuss budget cutbacks at the library, Vanier pressed her lips and shook her head.

“I was not real pleased.”

But Vanier was not as concerned for herself, even though closing at 5 p.m. means she can only come in on her lunch breaks.

“Look right here at all the computers being used to people who don’t have Internet at home,” Vanier said and motioned toward the computer area where each of the eight chairs were filled.

“I know lots of kids use it, I always see them at 3-3:30 p.m. (after school),” she said

“And college students, too,” said a young woman in a sorority T-shirt across the room at a stand-up computer station.

In 11 months, there were 42,248 visits to library, which includes multiple visits. Only 1,750 were out-of-towners.

Cassagne said the familiar faces feel the impact whenever the library gets hit hard. Cassagne also said the economically disadvantaged people will be most affected by cuts to operational hours and resources.

Only 46 percent of homes in Mississippi had Internet access in 2007, which was the lowest percentage of homes with access in the country, according U.S. Census Bureau data.

Armstrong Library Assistant Director Anne White said when reports are due or exam season rolls around, the students flow through the door in waves.

And while many find the Internet helpful, Cassagne said some students simply use the computers for word processor programs.

“People say you can’t fight City Hall,” White said.

However, White said if library patrons and supporters make enough sound, letters, e-mails and phone calls, it might force city leaders to consider the impact the library has on the community when making decisions.