To Pennsylvania's 624 public libraries - whose state funding was slashed 20 percent last year - the new budget reads like a book with the climactic ending ripped out.
"Slowly but surely, we've been crippled," said Martina Kominiarek, executive director of Bucks County Free Library system, which comprises Pennwood and six other branches.
In recent years, libraries have coped with repeated rollbacks in funding by reducing hours and staff, charging small fees for borrowing movies and CDs, and scaling back on book-buying and special programs, such as the popular children's story time.
Now, librarians say, they will have to pare even more while library use is higher than ever - thanks in large part to the economy.
In city and suburbs alike, people line up at library computers to job-hunt or apply for aid. Statewide, visits to libraries are up 11 percent this year, computer use up 19 percent, and circulation up 9 percent, said Glenn Miller, executive director of the Pennsylvania Library Association.
But thanks to reductions in state aid, Miller said, "we're hanging on by a thread."
A spokesman for Rendell defended the latest cuts as the necessary cost of the recession. "The state can't print money," Gary Tuma said Friday. "We have to balance the budget with what we have."
At the Montgomery County-Norristown Public Library, all 16 terminals in the computer lab are nearly always in use. The machines have become a lifeline for students and job seekers, lab support specialist Jim Boardway said.
"This is ridiculously indispensable to the people who come here," he said - "especially with the unemployed," who use the computers to look for job openings, print resumés, and apply for public assistance.
Despite a 22 percent increase in computer use last year, the Norristown library has eliminated several oft-used databases because of the loss of $484,000 in state funding, said Loretta Righter, head of reference services. One of the more popular databases, Learning Express, helps students prepare for standardized tests such as the SAT.
This year the legislature trimmed funding for another widely used online service, Pennsylvania Online World of Electronic Resources Library, which had been offered free to schools and libraries. The appropriation was cut by more than half.
The Free Library of Philadelphia, already reeling from the city's plan to decrease support by $2.5 million, will lose an additional $700,000 in state funding, director Siobhan Reardon said.
"I was expecting a 2 percent cut," Reardon said. "I never dreamed it would be this high."
Staffing, materials, and maintenance of the city's 54-branch library system will have to be trimmed, she said. That's on top of losing more than 125 employees and 40 percent of the book-buying budget in the last two years.
At the Central Library, departments that once offered evening hours have gone daytime-only because there's not enough staff.
Chuck Esser, 62, of West Philadelphia, who was picking up audio books there Friday, said libraries were the last thing that should be cut.
His oldest son, who was bullied in school, "would have gotten beat up every day if he didn't have a library to go to," Esser said. "Neighborhood libraries are a place of safety for kids."
So many young people line up to use the computers at her local library - the Lucien E. Blackwell branch, at 52d and Chestnut Streets - that Andrea Williams, 48, has to go to the main library.
"People depend on the library for access to jobs," she said.
At Pennwood, that was true for Michael Moncel, 48. He was applying online for warehouse work at Kmart. He said many companies wanted online applications only - and since he doesn't own a computer, he needs the library to look for work. "They already cut back their hours," Moncel said. If more cuts came, "it would be a hardship."
Next to him, Kendra Oliver-Derry, 17, was searching for grants to help pay her tuition at Bucks County Community College in September. Without Internet service at home, she uses the library's computers to do her homework.
Between work, school, and Pennwood's reduced hours, it's already hard to get a terminal at peak times, Oliver-Derry said. If the library starts closing earlier, "I don't know what I'll do," she said. "I plan to be here all the time next year."
Chester County libraries have already eliminated half their subscription databases and will probably cut more, executive director John Venditta said. They'll also buy fewer books, so readers will have to wait longer to get popular titles.
"Libraries are very, very good at just kind of sucking it up and not making a big stink about it," he said. "Customer service is where we want to maintain as much as we can. But we're going to end up having to do things people are going to notice."
Perhaps no library has struggled as much as Darby Borough's, a little redbrick building that claims to be America's oldest public library, in continuous service since 1743.
In December, it looked as if the economic realities of 2009 would do what wars, depressions, and other misfortunes couldn't: Put Darby's library out of business.
The library was set to close when the borough ponied up an additional $20,000 to keep it in business, director Susan Borders said.
Now, open for the state-mandated minimum of 45 hours a week and with only two part-time librarians, the staff already cleans the building, takes out the trash, and shovels snow. And there's a two-hour wait for the five computers, which aren't even broadband.
So when Borders was asked how the library will make up the state budget shortfall, all she could say was, "Good question. If anybody has any ideas they can call me."
Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella at kboccella@ phillynews.com or 610-313-8123.
Inquirer staff writer Alfred Lubrano contributed to this article.