Budget cuts force library to re-evaluate mobile services
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Inside Montgomery County's bookmobile, Susie Andrews is in her element.
Encircled by nursery school students, Curious George and Dora the Explorer books and photos of the thousands of children she has served during the past 34 years, Andrews holds up a book about colors and starts reading with her bellowing voice.
"Are lemons red?" she starts. "Noooooo, lemons are not red. Apples are red!"
Andrews' visit Friday to Rockville's Temple Beth Ami nursery school truck touch marked the end of an era. After operating the bookmobile for decades, Andrews is retiring a few months early and the bookmobile is being taken out of service for at least two years, she said.
In a typical week, Andrews spends five hours per day, five days per week visiting subsidized housing communities and schools with Head Start programs, which are nursery-school programs for low-income families.
She said she brings books to children whose parents' might not take them to the library, delivering everything from the popular "Llama Llama Red Pajama" to educational books students need for school projects. Her mobile van also is stocked with teen novels and "urban literature" for young parents, she said.
"These are kids that may not make it to the library because it's just not a priority in this recession," she said. "Their parents, they're worried about food and rent, not books."
Andrews, 67, of Washington, D.C., was wearing dangling shell earrings and a beaded choker during her nursery visit last week, a summer look matched to her short, graying hair. She had planned on retiring in October, but when she heard the news that the bookmobile was being cut, she opted to leave a few months early to save a younger librarian's job.
When children walk up the stairs into her cramped, generator-operated trailer, the two long walls are lined with picture books, graphic novels, popular young-adult series and Spanish magazines. A tiny counter with a laptop serves as her checkout desk, with library cards of the county's subsidized-housing children stored alphabetically in small boxes. In front of the shelves are two ledges where children sit. When children march in, pointing and pulling each other's hair, Andrews comes to life.
For hours, she reads about the color of lemons and happy animals shouting "Hooray!" to groups of kids, never losing a hint of gusto. But these kids are not her usual customers; she said she is far more used to dealing with Hispanic families looking to improve their English or low-income teens, who she said often carry baggage. She visits each community every other week and learns about the kids while delivering books.
The county is cutting its mobile-services van, but it is being cut at the same time many families need the service more than ever, she said.
"The recession has hit the Beltway; we're feeling it now," she said in a brief break between groups of children. No sooner had she finished that sentence than a group of 10 kids shuffled into the bus. "Oh, look at these darlings!" she said in the same breath that had just discussed the serious budgetary crises.
When Andrews talks to parents and teachers about the end of her run, they are outraged.
Liz Crickey, a teacher from Olney, took her sons a few weeks ago to a different truck touch, and said she was overwhelmed by Andrews' fervor and devotion.
"I've only met her once, but she just drew me in," she said. "I could have stayed there for hours chatting with her. ... You can just see in her eyes that she loves what she does."
But Michele Sellars, public services administrator for community engagement and outreach with the county's libraries, said the 12-year-old van is in bad shape, and the county needs to re-evaluate its mobile-services options.
"It's at the end of its life cycle, and was in disrepair for most of it's time," she said. "So we need to take this time to replan outreach services for Montgomery County."
The bookmobile costs $225,000 per year to operate and staff, said Eric Carzon, the libraries business manager. He said it has been in the shop for nearly half the year because the vehicle has been breaking down and having issues.
Carzon and Sellars declined to comment on what 21st-century style mobile services might look like, but they said it will not be with the same old trailer Andrews has been driving. Andrews said she thinks the county might opt instead to place books at affordable-housing centers for children to read while their parents wait in line.
"This was sort of a moment where we had to go, Well do we have a completely solid idea of what mobile services should look like?'" Carzon said. They decided they didn't, and are using the next two years to figure it out, he said.
Besides the library system cutting the bookmobile's service in the upcoming fiscal year, libraries will soon lose funding for its summer-reading program, and branches will be forced to cut hours. Sellars said the library is focused on maintaining staffing wherever possible for customers who walk through the door. She also said while the summer-reading program won't be taking place because of staff cuts, branches still will host popular summer programs such as magic shows, interactive theater productions and a presentation on dinosaurs by the Maryland Science Center. These programs are made possible by the Friends of the Library, Montgomery County Inc., she said.
As Andrews closes this chapter of her life, she said she plans to volunteer and continue spending her day interacting with children. She will volunteer during the week at St. Anthony's Catholic School and on weekends at the Hospital For Sick Children, both in Washington, D.C.
"It seems like some people are just born to work with kids," she said. "... I just have this passion, and I don't know where it came from."