It has been almost three months since the Petaluma Library reduced its hours of operation from 52 to 40 per week and the staff, public and volunteers are still adjusting to the change.

"A lot of what we are doing now is a work in progress. How does our staff handle the workload and how do we maintain as many services for our patrons as we can under the new schedule?" said Doug Cisney, Petaluma Library branch manager.

The reduced schedule which affects all branches of the Sonoma County Library system went into effect on Aug. 1 in an effort to close a $1.5 million funding gap at the Petaluma branch.

Under the new schedule, the library is closed on Mondays, closes at 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and at 4 p.m. on Saturdays, two hours earlier than it did prior to the change. Evening hours are limited to Wednesdays when the library is open until 8 p.m.

Sonoma County Library Director Sandy Cooper says that the Library Commission is committed to maintaining library service at the current levels as long as possible. "The problem is that our revenues continue to decline — about 10 percent over the past three fiscal years. Service hours are not the only thing we have to maintain — we are trying to avoid laying off permanent staff as well as maintain our library collections, services and buildings," she said.

"On the whole, patrons have been very understanding," said librarian Kate Keaton. "But it can be very frustrating for people who are surprised to find the library closing at 4 p.m. on Saturday and they can't get the information that they need."

The patrons who rely on the free resources that the library provides are often the ones who are the least able to adapt to the new schedule. "Libraries are busier when the economy is bad because many people aren't able to afford to buy books or DVDs. And we are a very important resource for people using the internet for job searches or to complete job applications, yet the Monday closing and reduced schedule can make access difficult for them," said Cisney.

Although the library is achieving cost savings by not using substitutes when they are understaffed, adapting to the new schedule has presented some challenges to the staff, according to Cisney.

"Now that the library is closed on Sundays and Mondays, there is a huge volume of items that have been dropped in the book returns. There may be 1,000 books and DVDs waiting for us on Tuesday mornings that all need to be checked in and processed," he said.

"With the new hours, we are also experimenting with shifting our children's programs which are very important in fostering early literacy," said Keaton. "Our tremendously popular Babytime, and Toddler Time are now on Fridays and Preschool Storytime is on Wednesdays."

The new schedule has also meant some personal sacrifices for staff. "Before the cutbacks, some staff worked Fridays and some worked Saturdays," Cisney said. "Now everyone works Saturdays which can be very hard on staff members who are parents and have to miss attending their child's activities."

The new schedule raised concerns that the library would be able to retain its almost 100 volunteers. "They all made the switch to the new hours," said Cisney.

Furlough days have been used the past two years ago as a cost-cutting measure, but no decision has been made about furloughs this year, because labor negotiations have not been completed. The library will close early (6 p.m.) on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. All county library branches were closed last year for 10 days between Christmas and New Year's, but Cooper says that no decision has been made about closing them during the holidays this year.

"People don't like that we are closed, but they understand it and are very supportive," said Cisney.

"Staff and volunteers deserve a lot of credit for dealing with the uncertainty. It's a difficult time for everybody."

(Contact Colleen Rustad at argus@arguscourier.com)