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. . . for those who can afford it

Worry clouds Mary Beth Pallis's mind when she thinks of the Dunstable Free Public Library's uncertain future.

Pallis, the library's director, knows its fate rests on a $79,494 tax-limit override that will be put to voters tomorrow. Two overrides have already failed in Dunstable this year.

Nursing her $121,000 budget, which has been cut or level-funded over the years, Pallis sees the tax hike, which would increase her funding by about $15,000, as the only way her library can maintain its state certification. If it loses that status, residents will not be able to borrow books and materials from any library outside Dunstable, and the town will lose out on state library-building grants for at least three years.

Dunstable's struggle is similar to that faced by several other towns across the Commonwealth. As overrides fail in many communities, deep cuts, loss of accreditation, or even branch closings have become the unintended consequence. And increasingly the level of service at local libraries is being driven more by the depth of local taxpayers' pockets and private donors' generosity than the underlying principles upon which the public library system was founded. The communities that can afford to do so will have libraries stocked not only with materials but also enrichment programs for patrons; those that can't will have libraries that can barely stay open evenings and weekends.

Pallis said she is most upset for Dunstable residents who rely on the library for computers, new books, and movies because they can't afford to buy their own.

"It's the ones who need it the most that get hit the hardest," she said. "Libraries are the great equalizer: Anyone can use the library no matter how much money you make. I'm worried that may be disappearing."

Forty percent of Massachusetts residents use their local library at least two to three times a month, according to data collected by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. For the users surveyed, the most popular days to go to the library are the weekends, Sundays in particular.

But of the 34 Massachusetts communities in the Globe NorthWest coverage area, only 11 offer Sunday library hours during the year. According to census data, all but one of those communities have a median household income well over the state average of $57,184 and the Middlesex County average of $69,045.

Lynda Wills, director of the Winchester Library, said 10 percent of her $1.5 million budget is paid through private fund-raising. The library is able to have Sunday hours only because of private donors. Winchester also was one of a handful of communities to approve a tax increase recently: A $1.3 million override restored $72,000 to the library budget.

"It's a new rule: Fund-raising is a big part of this job," said Wills. "Ten years ago I wasn't doing it at all. Soon, I'll start fund-raising again for next year.

"It's sad, because libraries were started to provide information for everyone, whether or not they could pay. In the Great Depression, the 1930s, libraries held longer hours because the role was clear. Now, we're working hard to keep our doors open so kids have somewhere to go after school."

Robert Maire, director of the Board of Library Commissioners, said he was not certain the predicament can be defined simply in terms of socioeconomics, but agreed that libraries across the region have felt the brunt of failed overrides. Maire listed a number of communities across the state that have either closed or considered closing buildings entirely, including Saugus, Hampden, Randolph, and Rockland.

"The sad part is that it takes a crisis for people to value the service," he said. "What we have is a service that has been around for 150 years, a service people believe has always been there."

In Lexington, an endowment started in 1867 by Maria Hastings Cary has helped fund the materials budget for the Cary Memorial Library for years. For the first time since 1981, in the fiscal 2007 budget, the town appropriated $35,000, to assist in materials purchases. The town also approved an override in 2006 to continue the library's Sunday hours.

The Lexington library is one of the fortunate ones. In addition to its circulation of more than 600,000 materials each year, the institution has a number of book clubs and holds various programs and events throughout the year.

A program that brought animals from the New England Zoo recently drew 86 people to the library. Other recent events -- a bubble performance by Casey Carl of Cirque de Soleil, a "truck day" program, and a performance by the Kidstock Creative Theatre Education Center -- drew 282, 494, and 120 people, respectively. Ruth Lynn, supervisor of children's services, said 1,407 children have registered for the always-popular children's summer reading program.

Director Connie Rawson says that the demand in her community fuels the programs, but adds that she is well aware Lexington is an exception to what is happening across the state.

"Cities and towns are struggling," said Rawson. "We are fortunate to have a very active foundation and friends group to help us through tough times."

In Arlington, Robbins Public Library director Maryellen Remmert-Loud said her library is still feeling the effects of a 2003 override defeat.

After town residents voted down a $4 million tax increase, the library lost its Sunday and Thursday morning hours. Even though voters approved a $6 million override in 2005, the hours were never restored.

Remmert-Loud worries that libraries that are struggling now may never return to the service levels of yesteryear.

"We never recouped our losses," she said. "People still come in on Thursday morning and try the doors. They don't understand why their library isn't open."

Melissa Beecher can be reached at mbeecher@globe.com.

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