A year ago, the Augusta-based East Central Georgia Regional Library System consisted of Richmond, Columbia, Burke, Warren and Lincoln counties. But when Columbia County decided it was tired of paying more than $130,000 in fees to be a part of the system, they broke off and formed their own, the Greater Clarks Hill Regional Library System. Warren and Lincoln counties went with them, and now it looks like Burke County is ready to fly the coop, too.
All this movement leaves Richmond County a region of one, and because of the complicated way libraries are funded, that means they’ve lost more than simply the membership fees. They’ve lost staff and state money as well.
In a nutshell, the state reimburses each county for one position for every 15,000 people. Some counties choose the positions, some choose to cash the positions out and use the money for other things.
In the case of Burke County, they didn’t want the positions, nor did they want to cash them out, so when the move is finalized, the two positions they’re due will join the headquarters branch in Evans. Chairman Ron Cross has said he supports such a move because he feels the staff at the Evans library is overworked.
By joining the regional group, the smaller counties receive professional representation at the state level, support and guidance from the professional librarians working at the main branch as well as IT support and addition technology grants dispensed from the main branch.
And when they join up with Columbia County’s regional system, they get out from under the membership fees.
Barry Smith, Columbia County’s Community and Leisure Services director who oversees the library system, decided not to institute a membership fee because he never felt like he received a return on the investment when he paid them under the old system, and he suspects that was a big motivator for the other counties when they jumped ship.
While the whole system in Columbia County is still young, it seems to be working out well, but keep an eye out for how this is going to change things in Richmond County. Before all the changes, the downtown branch already had lower circulation numbers than the Evans branch. In fact, circulation numbers last year revealed that Columbia County’s three libraries nearly equaled the circulation of Richmond County’s six libraries.
Both main branches make strong statements about their community’s commitment to libraries. Each is an impressive addition and offers cultural and educational opportunities that are desperately needed. Anyone who hasn’t made a visit to them should do so immediately, and they should be prepared to be impressed.
But there’s no arguing that the Richmond County library system has taken a huge hit this last year. When Columbia County gains positions, Richmond County loses them, and though by shedding the extra counties they’ve also gotten rid of some of the work, the loss of the membership fees has got to hurt at a time when the state is cutting back library funding by 25 percent and the city of Augusta is looking less and less able to mind the details and look after the things that matter.