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With book budget frozen, Walla Walla Public Library turns to donations for new editions

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Walla Walla Public Library

Public Services Librarian Twila Johnson Tate and Simmon Palomino, library technician, work in the teen area of the library last week. The young adult collection has been relocated to a bigger space during the pandemic closure to allow more room for physical distancing when the library opens.

In a pandemic that was already stranger than fiction, COVID-19 has been an antagonist for the book budget at the Walla Walla Public Library.

Now comes the operation’s latest coronavirus-connected plot twist: seeking donations from the public to help backfill book purchases that it hasn’t been able to make in the last four months.

“Being a librarian, you often deal with small budgets or tight budgets,” library Director Erin Wells said.

“You get used to solving problems in nontraditional ways. That’s just the nature of the job. But I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

Financial losses during the pandemic with the drop in retail sales tax collections has put a primary focus on employee retention, Wells said. The operation has avoided furloughs and layoffs.

But to keep employees working, other areas of the budget have been frozen. Specifically, the roughly $130,000 the library spends to purchase books each year.

Wells said the typical $10,000 spent each month on new reading materials has not taken place since the library’s closure mid-March.

Demand, however, is there for the information and escapism the library provides.

Since delivery services launched mid-May, followed by curbside service in June, more than 1,000 people have borrowed books, audio books and DVDs, Wells said.

“I think these days people are wanting books to distract them a little,” she said. “We’re looking for ways to distract ourselves from the current reality.”

A $5,000 allocation from the city a couple of months ago for purchases helped, she said. But it didn’t go as far as library operators would have liked.

Wells envisions the priority would include a mix of backfilling planned purchases going back to March, as well as titles for which the library has the most requests.

The operation is typically able to stretch its budget buying from the same resources as stores at about 40% off retail cover prices, Wells said.

The cost for eBooks and eAudiobooks is significantly higher — by three or four times for a single copy, she said.

Furthermore, eBooks can have metered access, where they can only be checked out a certain number of times before another copy must be purchased.

“Costs are determined by the publisher, and libraries across the country are struggling with this issue,” Wells said.

The library has not purchased any new eBooks in several months, either.

With no possibility of a more organized fundraising event, Wells said the library is making an ask for donations instead.

“We do realize that we’re not going to be able to make up our original budget,” she said.

“I think our focus would be things we know the community wants or has requested.”

She acknowledged many may be wrestling with their own financial struggles brought about by effects of the pandemic.

“There’s just a lot of popular authors that people are wanting that we just haven’t been able to keep up with really,” she said.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 509-526-8321.

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.