More people are coming to St. Paul's libraries, thanks in part to a decision to drop late fees, but money to spend on new books and materials is getting squeezed.

The 2020 budget proposed by Mayor Melvin Carter reduces collections spending from nearly $1.5 million to $1.3 million. Meanwhile, library officials say, the cost of keeping the system running continues to rise — particularly given the demand for a growing array of services and materials.

A reduction in collections funding could mean fewer materials and longer wait times, said Catherine Penkert, library director.

"Generally, collections funding is tied to the breadth and depth of what's available," she said. "If we have less funding, it might mean fewer copies."

City officials say the proposed reduction in collections funding is not a result of eliminating fines. The city boosted the portion of the library budget that comes from property taxes in 2019 when fees went away.

Carter's 2020 budget includes more than $4 million in cuts across all city departments. Other reductions in the libraries budget include software subscriptions and organizational memberships.

Peter Leggett, the mayor's communications director, said sources for one-time collections funding may emerge in coming months.

The 2018 and 2019 budgets included temporary increases in funding for library materials after declines in 2016 and 2017.

St. Paul Public Libraries' per capita spending has dropped over the last decade, and is now below average for the seven-county metro. At the same time, the libraries are providing more services — the proposed 2020 budget includes money for a full-time social worker, the Read Brave citywide reading program and Wi-Fi hot spots that residents without internet access can check out for free.

Gemechu Deme, who was working on his laptop at Highland Park Library on Monday morning, said he visits regularly to use the internet because he doesn't have it at home. He also likes to check out fiction books, he said, and occasionally reads eBooks on his phone.

Across the library, about 20 children gathered for story time in an alcove overlooking a pollinator garden. Shahzore Shah said he and his 2-year-old daughter, Charlotte, are there every week to listen to stories and check out books, including titles from the collection of children's books in French.

"It's great that they have them here," he said.

Barb Schellinger and her 1-year-old granddaughter Vera are also weekly visitors, "especially in the winter when we need a place to go," Schellinger said. For her own reading, Schellinger said she opts for both print books and electronic audiobooks and magazines.

Demand for more

The popularity of electronic materials has put stress on library budgets.

Unlike print books, libraries don't buy eBooks. Instead, they obtain a license that must be renewed on a regular basis, for a price that the publisher decides. Libraries also pay more than regular consumers — while the electronic version of Michelle Obama's "Becoming" costs $14.99 on Amazon, Penkert said a single electronic copy costs the library $55.

Other library systems across the country are facing a similar challenge as their budgets fail to keep up with the variety of materials that patrons expect.

"I can tell you very strongly that across the board, this is a huge concern of public libraries," said Curtis Rogers, communications director for the Urban Libraries Council. "We see libraries really struggling with decisions as far as what to put in their content mix, because of this and other pricing issues."

In Hennepin County, the collections budget dropped in 2019 and is expected to drop again in 2020, though the number of patrons checking out electronic materials is rising.

"Given that for a title you're looking at the print book, the large print book, the eBook, the audiobook, the e-audiobook, it's really hard to buy in all those formats and keep the wait low," said Johannah Genett, resource services division manager.

The library system has turned to Friends of the Hennepin County Library to augment its collections budget as staffing, IT and infrastructure costs rise, Genett said.

The Friends of the St. Paul Public Library is advocating for a 2020 libraries budget that maintains collections funding at its current level, President Beth Burns said. The organization wants a permanent funding source for collections, rather than one-time allocations, she said.

"We believe strongly that as much as there are cuts to be made in every department, including the library, a cut to the collections budget at exactly the time when citizens are responding very positively to this invitation back into their libraries is not prudent," she said.

Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509