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Richard Burns

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Richard Burns, the state librarian, stands amid stacks of books at the state library system’s main branch downtown. With circulation numbers at a 10-year high, Burns hopes Gov. Linda Lingle will release $2.96 million in funds approved by the Legislature, which would forestall furlough days beginning in August.

Hawaii state librarian Richard Burns’ own summer reading list includes the state budget, at least the sections specific to a system that he is optimistically awaiting the release of funding for to officially end furloughs that closed libraries for 15 days last school year.

"We are hopeful that the governor will release all the funding," said Burns, grateful for the public and political support that is getting Hawaii’s 51 public libraries back on track.

Burns, 54, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science and a master’s in library science, joined Hawaii’s library system in 1983 and assumed the top job in 2008, having worked in libraries in Kahuku, Waianae, Manoa, Ewa Beach, Hawaii Kai, Kailua, Kaneohe, Waimanalo and Kapolei.

He and his wife have two daughters, who attend college in Washington state.

Burns’ favorite author is John Steinbeck, although he tends more toward nonfiction these days, including, at the moment, "Superfreakonomics" and "1,001 Natural Wonders You Must See Before You Die."

QUESTION: The furloughs got a lot of attention affecting the schools. But they also affected the libraries, although that got less attention from the media. Are they over now for the libraries? Are your hours back to normal?

ANSWER: Not quite. First, let me tell you about last year’s furloughs and then I’ll get to this year’s, if that’s OK.

I’m very proud of our staff that when we came to the point that we had to implement furloughs, we decided to have our furlough days as much as possible on Wednesdays. … So although our staff sacrificed by giving up their three-day weekends and our parents sacrificed their time with their own children on furlough days, we were able to emphasize our public service capability to provide an alternative on those Friday furlough days for so many residents in Hawaii.

Q: So what now?

A: For the upcoming year, we were very, very fortunate in this past legislative session. The House Finance Committee, and Senate Ways and Means and the full House and full Senate agreed to in their budget to restore a $2.96 million budget reduction, which we had accommodated as a system by implementing this furlough plan.

Q: So with the Legislature restoring that funding, moving forward, will you be back open on those Wednesdays?

A: We’re halfway there. The Legislature restored the funding to our budget. The next step is the governor actually has to release that funding.

Q: Does that look likely?

A: We’re cautiously optimistic because the governor has always supported Hawaii’s public libraries. We’re optimistic that she will release the full $2.96 million, which we anticipate will allow us to eliminate furlough days (for the fiscal year beginning July 1). … We have no furlough days scheduled already for June and July. And if we have to go to furlough days, those will start in August. But we’re hoping that the governor will release funding by then and we won’t have to take that step.

Q: Getting back to the funding that the Legislature put in: Do you think you were being rewarded partly for the approach you took during the budget crisis, mitigating the impact on families by staying open on Fridays? Or was this part of the funding of the total education package?

A: I think there are several things that went into that process. First, our administrative services officer worked very hard with the money committees in the Legislature. I think another huge factor is that a year ago the Legislature received literally thousands of letters from our patrons across the state emphasizing to them the quality programs and services we provide for our patrons and their constituents. I think there was a tangible show of a support by the broad community for what we do with the response to (two fundraising campaigns) that generated $300,000 from our patrons. … I expect that the Legislature took all of those things into account, as well as our arguments to them that we provide a fantastic public service across the state for all of our citizens at a very low cost.

Q: How is usage at the libraries?

A: Last year’s circulation — the number of materials checked out from our public libraries — was the highest it’s been in the last 10 years.

(For the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2009, before the 15 furlough days occurred. Statistics for fiscal year 2009-2010 will be compiled after June 30. Burns expects a decline in overall usage due to the library closures, but perhaps an uptick on Fridays, when furloughed students and state workers visited libraries.)

Q: Is that because of the poor economy? People looking for free resources?

A: Traditionally, library usage increases during a down economy. In addition to circulation going up, attendance at library programs rose more than 12 percent. So that’s reinforcement that we’re providing the programs and services that our patrons want and need during this down economy.

Q: As we’re starting to get a little bit better economic news for the state as a whole, what are your goals for the library system as we move out of crisis mode? Or is it too early to move out of that mode?

A: We are seeing several positive economic indicators and are hopeful those will expand. … I think our immediate goals would be to restore the staffing and the public service hours that we have lost over the past couple of years and to be able to return our programs and services and public service hours to where they were before this difficult situation hit.

Beyond that, we had started to, and I hope will continue to, move more into the electronic realm. We’re providing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of online databases that can be accessed either in the library, or from home or from a mobile device. We have e-books and audiobooks that can be downloaded to your computer, or to a disc, or to a portable device. There’s a lot of steps we can take forward in the electronic realm to expand our services and expand access to our collections even during times when the library is not open itself.


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