CAMDEN, N.J. – The mayor of one of the nation's poorest cities is working on a plan to keep the city's three libraries open and available to residents after the library board announced last week they would be closed due to budget cuts.
Camden Mayor Dana Redd said Monday that city officials will look to join the county library system and allow patrons to check out books from the library at Rutgers University's Camden campus.
The City Council must approve joining the county system, and there is no guarantee that in doing so the libraries will remain open. There is also no guarantee that the 21 city library employees will keep their jobs.
The library board said it would close the libraries by the end of the year because of a nearly 70 percent cut in library funding this year.
Officials at the American Library Association believe Camden's library system would have been first in the U.S. with multiple branches to close entirely.
Camden, a city of 80,000 residents across the Delaware River from Philadelphia where poet Walt Whitman is buried, consistently ranks as one of the nation's most impoverished. Most of its families don't own computers, just one big bookstore serves the local colleges and some of the public schools don't even have librarians.
Camden Free Public Library is a major hub for many residents and draws 150,000 visits a year.
"After learning that the library board's only solution was to close our libraries, I knew I could not let that happen," Redd said. "Our children and our residents deserve better."
Budget cuts across the country have caused local officials to close library branches, reduce hours and spend less money on books, computers and other materials.
The library received $935,000 from the city and $88,000 from the state last year. This year, the library asked the city for $823,000 — a 12 percent reduction. But the mayor offered only $281,666, which was too little to qualify for any state assistance, according library board member and activist Frank Fulbrook.
Redd insisted on Monday that she never intended for the libraries to be shuttered.
"I cannot make this any clearer: Never has it been the intention of my administration ... to close any of Camden's libraries," Redd said.
The closest county library is in Haddon Township, about 7 miles away from the main library in downtown Camden.
Fulbrook said the move to fold the city libraries into the county system was a "land grab" for the city, which he believes wants to acquire the downtown building that houses the main library as part of a plan to expand the county courthouse or county jail.
"That's the dirty little secret," Fulbrook said, adding that the city has been looking to join the county system for years.
County freeholder Ian Leonard said the mayor is exercising her judgment in trying to join the county system and that residents would see expanded services as a result. Camden residents must currently pay a fee to use the county system because the city libraries don't belong.
At Rutgers, city residents are allowed to use six computer terminals set aside for the general public and can use all reference material. They cannot check out books, however, and there are other limitations: Rutgers' library lacks a children's section and is more geared toward research than leisure reading.
"There's some fiction, but for most part you are more likely to get a good book on organic chemistry to string physics," said Rutgers spokesman Michael Sepanic.
Other New Jersey libraries are also facing severe cutbacks.
In Newark, the state's largest city, the public library is eliminating Saturday hours at all branches and plans to permanently close two locations at the end of the month.
Eight branches in Newark will only be open three days per week, Wednesday through Friday.