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In the midst of a county budget crisis, these local heroes helped save Macon’s libraries

‘I do not take this privilege for granted’: Meet the Macon-Bibb librarians

During the protracted Macon-Bibb County budget struggles last summer, librarians rallied overwhelming community support. They were chosen as a 2018 Person of the Year by The Telegraph.
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During the protracted Macon-Bibb County budget struggles last summer, librarians rallied overwhelming community support. They were chosen as a 2018 Person of the Year by The Telegraph.

This year, the Telegraph chose two representations for our Person of the Year feature: the Macon-Bibb library staff and Beverly Olson. We feel each made a significant impact on the community this year, and paved the way for progress in the next. Macon, and Middle Georgia at large, is made better by their efforts.

A week after Kat Trent began studying for her master’s in library information science, three of Macon’s public libraries shut their doors.

On June 28, the Macon-Bibb County Board of Commission passed a $149 million budget for the new fiscal year, which would cut funding to the Middle Georgia Regional Library System, the Macon Transit Authority and other outside agencies partially supported by the local government in years past. The library system had enough money in its reserves to keep Washington Memorial Library open for at least another month, but the Lanford, Riverside and Shurling branches closed indefinitely.

Technology workshops were canceled, temporary summer staff were let go and Macon’s 67 library employees struggled to make sense of the news.

“I decided to make this my career. This is something that I’m extremely passionate about,” said Trent, children and teen specialist at Shurling Library. “And then, when we shut down, it broke my heart.”

Libraries are more than just book lenders. They’re community centers, open to the public, free of charge. And during the summer months, when school is out and the air is thick with Georgia heat, residents of all ages spend hours among the stacks.

Summer is the busiest time of the year at the library, said Jennifer Lautzenheiser, director of the Middle Georgia Regional Library System.

“During the summer, when all of the libraries are open, families can keep themselves busy every single day of the week,” she said.

Some come to check their email or apply for jobs, and others bring their children to check out summer reading books.

“I see the libraries as being also a third space, the place outside of home or work where people can go and be part of their community,” said James O’Neal, head of public services and 23-year veteran of the library system. “They can engage in lifelong learning, they can have recreational activities, book clubs, work on things on the computer, whatever. But it’s a place where they can go, and you don’t have to pay to go there.”

Washington Memorial Library took in the satellite branches’ staff during the shutdown and relocated some of their events, but several programs fell through the cracks, like Shurling Library’s free lunch and literacy sessions. And some residents who typically walk to their neighborhood branches couldn’t make the trek to the flagship location downtown.

“If their branch was closed and they couldn’t walk there — and we know that transportation was also affected by the budget crisis — that meant that there were segments of our community that lost access to information and technology during that time period,” Lautzenheiser said.

But in spite of limited resources, Macon’s librarians banded together to serve their patrons as best they could.

“It’s not a profession you get rich in,” said Muriel Jackson, head of genealogy and archives at Washington Memorial Library. “You do it because you love it.”

Jackson cherishes the moments when children come to the library for the first time.

“It’s so wonderful to watch a child just light up at the thought of being able to come to the library and to get a book,” she said. “They’re our future, tomorrow. So we need to make sure that they have exposure to what they need to know to make the world a better place for when we depend on them to help us.”

Community members didn’t want to watch such a vital resource go away. The Friends of the Library organized a protest and the EveryLibrary political action center circulated a petition. Loyal patrons and library staff across the state donned blue each Tuesday in solidarity. One regular visitor even offered to store materials in his home.

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Library employees and supporters react to the Macon-Bibb County Commission passing funding that would enable the system to resume normal services by Aug. 27. In addition to the emergency measure, commissioners passed a millage rate of 20.652, 3 mils higher than last year. Beau Cabell bcabell@macon.com

“I was kept in a very upbeat state of mind by the amount of support coming in from the patrons — people calling, people coming in the building, people responding on our social media just to tell us how much they valued the library and supported it,” O’Neal said. “That helped get through the difficult times.”

In the third week of August, Washington Memorial Library ran out of funding. During a meeting that Thursday to discuss furloughs, staff gathered around a screen downstairs. County commissioners had convened once more to vote on a new budget.

Within minutes, funding to the libraries had been restored.

“When the funding was restored, I was just jumping for joy,” O’Neal said. “I had never been happier in my life. It was so good.”

Trent was overcome with emotion.

“I just cried, because I got to keep my home,” she said. “This is my home. This is what I decided to do. And for me, it’s just — this is it.”

This summer’s budget crisis reminded Lautzenheiser why she decided to become a librarian in the first place.

“I don’t think I truly appreciated the privilege that I had doing what I love every single day and feeling like I make a difference. And certainly going through this experience has made it so that I do not take this privilege for granted,” Lautzenheiser said. “I am thrilled to be able to come into work every day and serve my community.”

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.

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Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. She joined The Telegraph in June of 2018 and reports on the health of the community. Samantha graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 2018. As an undergraduate student, she interned for the Medill Justice Project, Hoy (Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language publication) and NPR-affiliate station WYPR in her hometown of Baltimore. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.
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