Hampton "Skip" Auld does not mince words when he talks about the struggles of Anne Arundel County's library system the past few years.
"We were devastated," the library director says. "We were on the ropes."
Years of government cuts during an economic downturn took its toll on the libraries. There was less money to buy new books, audio books and DVDs. Magazine subscriptions were canceled. Sunday hours were cut. Employees had no raises.
During those years, Auld spearheaded a cheery but relentless campaign on the library's behalf. The system completed a master plan for improving its branches. Hundreds of patrons attended town hall meetings.
"There has been a lot of crying out in the wilderness," Auld says.
Now, he says, the libraries are emerging from the wilderness.
With an improving economy filling the government's coffers — and a new county executive at the helm — the library system is the beneficiary of a more robust budget. If the County Council passes the allocations proposed by County Executive Laura Neuman, the library stands to get 3 percent pay raises for employees, nearly $750,000 to expand Sunday hours starting in January and $200,000 to buy more computers for library patrons.
All told, the library system is getting a 8 percent increase in its operating budget, from nearly $19 million to $20.5 million.
On top of that, the library would see $3.5 million to start plans to build a new regional library in Annapolis.
"The past three years have been very sparse. This year, I guess our prayers came through," says Worthington Hall, president of the library system's board of trustees.
Anne Arundel's 15 libraries are subpar compared to the systems in other counties, Auld says.
For example, he says, a library system should have about one square foot of library space for each county resident. By that measure, Anne Arundel should have at least 500,000 square feet of library space. It has about half that, Auld says.
"It's below all of our peer libraries in Maryland," he says.
The collections budget — the amount spent each year on buying new books and materials for the library — also falls short. Two years ago, a $1 million cut to the collections budget was restored, bringing it to the current level of $3 million per year. But the library system needs $4 million to keep up, Auld says.
Another key goal is to gradually replace or renovate more county libraries, starting with new regional libraries in Annapolis and Glen Burnie.
If the system can start now with a new Annapolis library and can get a steady stream of money in the capital budget, it's possible to upgrade half of the libraries within the next 25 years, Auld says.
He says the system is hoping to build a 65,000-square-foot branch in Annapolis. No site has been chosen yet, but Auld covets a grassy field next to the district courthouse on Rowe Boulevard as a potential home for the regional branch.
Auld credits an improving economy — and the new county executive — for the change in the system's fortunes. He's careful not to disparage former County Executive John R. Leopold but says the libraries' pleas for money the past few years "had kind of fallen on deaf ears."
Hall, of the board of trustees, is more direct: "I think our new county executive is very library-oriented. She understands the problems. And to be very truthful, one of the best things that happened to us is the new county executive."
Neuman says she's always been fond of libraries, ticking off the branches she has visited as a child and an adult as she lived in various places.
"Personally, libraries changed my life," Neuman says. "That's how the world was opened up to me."
Plus, she says, libraries help all segments of the county — from babies to senior citizens — making them a good use of tax dollars.
The County Council hasn't finalized the budget for next year, so it's not certain the library system will keep all of its proposed funding. But Auld says he received a warm welcome from the council at a budget presentation last month, and believes he has allies among council members.
And while the increases for the libraries are significant, they represent a small fraction of the overall budget — 1.2 percent. "Decimal dust," Auld says.
Still, while he's confident going into the County Council's final budget deliberations in the coming weeks, Auld acknowledges, "Nothing is certain until it's certain."