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UPGRADING THE SHELVES 

Library spends Novello money on (gasp!) books

When John Grisham cashed a $75,000 check to speak to a sold-out Novello Festival Belk Theater crowd two years ago, the booking was mentioned in news pages across the country. Some saw it as exorbitant payment for an admittedly popular author who wasn't even going to sign books before boarding a plane home. But this fall, the entire budget for adult authors at the Novello Festival -- not counting children's festivities and other events -- won't even top that.

So what gives? Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County (PLCMC) officials say they're still bringing the people they want to the October festival, even though they've acknowledged budget constraints. Overall library funding from county commissioners, which is a big chunk of library funding but isn't used for Novello, actually increased slightly to about $250,000 this year.

Library spokesperson Rita Rouse, who coordinates Novello, said the budget for ImaginOn: The Joe & Joan Martin Center, the new children's theater and library, (now about $11 million more than the initial $30.5 million estimate) isn't directly responsible for changes at Novello. But construction expenses for ImaginOn are one of several factors. "It's absolutely impossible to single out one factor," she said.

One certain difference this year is that the library needs to spend more on books and other materials to put it on par with the institutions officials consider their peers, said Rouse. Of the group of library peers, only Columbia's Richland County is in the Southeast, where library funding has historically lagged behind much of the country (particularly the Northeast). Others are in cities like Seattle and Boston -- much more metropolitan cities that nevertheless have libraries that share some characteristics with Charlotte.

Boston spends $10.20 per capita, while Richland spends $8.24 per capita. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, on the other hand, spends a comparatively measly $4.39. That's still more than many other North Carolina libraries, such as Wake County, but library officials didn't count those as peers in their November report to county commissioners.

While county funding is about the same, library use in Charlotte-Mecklenburg is up. Carol Myers, assistant library director, said she suspects much of the increased foot traffic comes from the opening of a bigger Steele Creek branch as well as extended hours at the Freedom Regional and Sugar Creek locations. People are checking out more books and the door count has grown, but the biggest change is in the number of people logging onto the system's website, from which people can reserve books and use reference sources.

When Novello began with four authors in 1991, it was frequently described as the library's "gift" to Charlotte. Since then the festival has brought in a range of authors from all over the map: Humor columnist Dave Barry, former President George Bush and First Lady Barbara, mystery writer Sue Grafton, journalist Walter Cronkite, Pulitzer Prize-winner Norman Mailer, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, finance guru Suze Orman, plus many short story writers and novelists known mostly to avid readers.

Organizers have confirmed critically acclaimed writers for this year's festival. But with a budget that dropped from about $233,000 last year to around $145,000 (about $60,000 for adult authors and the rest for children's authors and events), attendees will see few marquee names.

Former library director Bob Cannon, who co-founded the event in 1991, said he knew before he left in 2003 that Novello's budget was going down. Cannon said he didn't think there ever was a long-range vision for the festival.

"You never knew exactly where you would be any subsequent year," said Cannon, now head of the Broward County library system in Florida. "Every year was a new year."

Current PLCMC Director of Libraries Charles Brown said he was surprised when he arrived in 2004 from suburban Minneapolis that Novello wasn't completely paid for by outside sponsors like some other prominent book festivals. He felt Novello should be too. "It was costing the library a lot," Brown said.

Making Novello self-supporting was never in the plans when he was in Charlotte, Cannon said. Instead, organizers hoped to have costs split nearly evenly between ticket sales, outside donations and money from library fees and fines. But that never worked, he said. "We were always kind of struggling with either ticket sales or corporate support."

Cannon, who said self-sufficiency is a "noble" goal, always wanted to expand, even double, the festival. "But it became evident that the support just wasn't there to expand it from corporate funds or ticket sales. Any one of those corporations (in Charlotte), they just have those requests all day long."

Still, Brown said self-sufficiency is a must. He hopes to announce during Novello the formation of a community advisory committee that will help choose authors and find donors. Rouse said the festival would continue to seek writers that local readers want, including fiction, Latino and children's authors. Brown said the library is hoping to bring two high profile authors to Charlotte, but not necessarily under the umbrella of Novello. Their appearances would be paid for through a variety of outside sources.

"Maybe the goal is making it more self-sufficient," he said. "I think it's possible. Whether or not we can achieve that, I don't know."

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