Published April 21. 2014 4:00AM
New London - The muffled sounds of a drum circle ruptured the usual quiet of the Public Library of New London one recent day as Executive Director Suzanne Maryeski made her way through the stacks.
The rhythms found their way past the circulation desk, infiltrated the public computer stations and echoed through the area designated for those looking for jobs.
"That's the drumming workshop we run every Wednesday in the basement," Maryeski said as she made neat a pile of newspapers.
The drumming seminar was one of four diverse programs the library offered that day. The vast range of programming, Maryeski said, is one way the library seeks to attract more city residents.
Last year, almost 160,000 people came through the library's doors and it circulated more than 60,000 items, Maryeski said. Community organizations held more than 200 meetings at the library and library staff organized 566 programs.
The library assisted 2,509 people in looking for work and answered about 8,000 questions about technology, like how to set up an email address, she said.
"We're not doing everything we could be doing," Maryeski said. "We do everything we can, but there are more things we want to do to help New London improve."
This year, the Public Library of New London requested a budget of $620,781 - a 3 percent increase - from the city, and Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio included $625,000 for the library in his proposed budget.
Though it is held in trust by a nonprofit association, the library receives about 89 percent of its budget from the city's general fund.
For each resident, the city spends $1.84 on library materials. The state average is $5.05, according to a recent report published by the Connecticut State Library. Last fiscal year, the city appropriated 0.74 percent of its overall budget for the library. The state average is 1.29 percent and most other distressed municipalities rank higher than New London, according to the same report.
"We stretch every penny, every hour of work," Maryeski said. "We have to."
Compared to 2009, the library is open 18 fewer hours each week - a 27 percent reduction - and its book budget is down 48 percent.
And the library's staff, which in 2009 included three full-time and one part-time professional librarians, has been cut back to just one full-time and one part-time professional librarian.
The diminished staff means that everyone else has had to assume more and more responsibilities to avoid further cuts in services.
"We all wear different hats at different times and we all do everything we can do here," said Maritza Vargas, the library's head of circulation services.
Vargas also acts as the library's webmaster, assists Spanish-speaking guests and provides free notary public services.
"There are just so many things I can do for people in this job that I couldn't do in other jobs," Vargas said. "There are so many needs in this city and I'm really able to help address them here at the library."
Vargas also leads a small army of volunteers, whom the library relies heavily upon. Of all the public libraries in the state, only 15 benefited from more volunteer hours than New London, she said.
Maryeski is also requesting $59,123 to pay the salary and benefits for a full-time professional children's librarian, someone who would go into preschools, day care centers, home day cares and housing complexes to work with children and families to encourage reading and family literacy.
"The children of New London need a librarian specialized in working with preschool children to help them develop the pre-literacy skills that are necessary so students will arrive at school ready to learn how to read," she said. "Reading is such a huge precursor to success later in life."
The proposed budget increase would cover rises in operating costs and the price of employee benefits. It would also allow the library to pay its entire staff at least $10.10 per hour, the newly established minimum wage for all city employees and contractors.
Of the library's 22 employees, 10 earn less than $10.10 per hour. Because the library is a nonprofit organization and not a city department, it is not bound by the minimum wage ordinance.
But because the library gets the majority of its funding from the city, Maryeski said it should follow the spirit of the ordinance. The library's board of directors voted recently to pay all employees at least $10.10 per hour next fiscal year, she said.
The library has also requested funding from the Community Development Block Grant program to scrape and paint 80 wooden windows in its historic 1890 section.
And though money is tight, Maryeski said the library must continue to offer as many services as it can. Like the drum circle in the basement, the beat goes on.
"I know we're doing a lot," she said. "But we're not doing enough."