Keep your eye on the time when you find yourself at your local public library. Effective April 17, Houston's system is reducing operating hours across the board. Instead of being open for 70 hours per week, libraries will now be open 51 hours per week.
The cut is coming at an especially hard time for many of the libraries' most frequent visitors.
"Everyday I use these computers to scan for jobs and submit cover letters and applications," library patron Rosario Metú said this afternoon at the historic Freed-Montrose branch. The bustling scene at this branch had the computer lab as its epicenter — with many of the visitors searching for jobs after having found themselves unemployed within the past year.
"For people like me," added Metú, "every second counts."
Public libraries have always been a haven for the unemployed, but the urgency for expanded, not reduced, services has never been so apparent. In light of a prolonged recession, the number of people accessing library resources has increased dramatically: visits are up 13 percent, borrowing of materials has skyrocketed 15 percent and five percent more patrons are using the computers.
With the exception of the McGovern-Stella Link branch, all neighborhood libraries will be closed on weekends. And with the majority of branches closing by 6 p.m. on Monday through Friday, people with typical daytime jobs could be shut out completely.
"Like a rapidly growing number of public libraries throughout the state and country that are facing significant budget reductions due to the downturn in the economy," Dr. Rhea Brown Lawson, director of Houston Public Library, said. "HPL's new service hours will better align the Library within the City's current economic environment."
The reduction in hours reflects the recent $2.2 million slash in the 2010 budget, a six percent loss. The system's staff has also lost 42 full-time employees through attrition, a nine-percent fall since July 2009.
"Our intent is to keep doors open when the library is most used," says library spokeswoman Sandra Fernandez. "And that's the 3 to 6 p.m. after-school period."
Fernandez argues that under the new terms, at least one system library will be open during the daytime — a difficult pill to swallow considering the city's sprawl and many library users' lack of access to personal transportation.
The library aims to maintain its current standard of quality service within the new parameters — sacrificing time rather than service with a smile.
Yet Brown Lawson admits, "Reduction of staff and increased customer usage has significantly impacted the library's ability and capacity to maintain current service levels."
Time will tell whether or not our libraries' standards will be saved by the bell — or unwind completely.