As a brand new school year begins, New Haven residents and children are finding it more difficult to enjoy the collections of the New Haven Free Public Library.

With the city slashing budgets across the board in order to address a worsening fiscal situation, the New Haven library system has been hit particularly hard, leading to deep cuts in operating hours over the summer that will continue through the year.

“It’s a problem and we understand that,” City Librarian Jim Welbourne said. “However, this is one of the few times where the library is not asked to take a cut in order that other departments do not. We are all facing the same situation right now — a general citywide downsizing in service.”ÊÊÊ

The city’s budget for the current fiscal year reduces the public library system’s operating budget by 10 percent. These cuts will translate into a drastic reduction in operating hours for the fall; the main branch will be closed on both Sundays and Fridays.

Jim Foye, a spokesman for Mayor John DeStefano Jr., said that the cuts in library funding would be indefinite. The mayor was unavailable for comment Tuesday because of the heightened state of alert due to the Sept. 11 anniversary.

Kathie Hurley, a spokeswoman for the library system, said the library would try to restore some of the weekend and evening operating hours in October that were cut during the summer months.

Under the new schedule, Hurley said, the main Elm Street branch will be open Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., closed Friday, and open on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Hours at the three branch libraries will be Monday, Tuesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesday from 12 a.m. to 8 p.m., closed Friday, and open on Saturday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Per the summer schedule, the library will remain open on Fridays but not on Saturdays through September.

“Though hardly ideal, by adding Saturdays we will be returning one weekend day to our public service which is primarily a day that we are heavily used by people who work all week and by families for a variety of programs,” Hurley said.

Hurley said community groups that use the library for meeting spaces have lost the most.

“Our reduced summer hours made a big impact on those groups and though we redirected them to other spaces, many have voiced their opinions about the need to keep meeting in the library,” she said. “I hope the added hour of service plus Saturday hours in our downtown branch will enable many of those groups to return and avail themselves of our community space.”

Fair Haven Branch Manager Betsy Goldberg said the reduction in library operating hours will hurt the community.ÊÊÊÊ

“I’d like to see the library open as much as possible,” she said. “In this community, we really lose when we’re not open in the evenings.”

Hurley said private fund raising will play an important role in trying to avoid the effects of future budget cuts.

“One important response is to begin serious fund raising and development as an institution so that in spite of the fiscal realities around us, we can rely on other dollars augmenting our library budget,” she said. “It is a challenge we’ve accepted by instituting a development office and one that can only keep growing thanks to the generosity of public library lovers who recognize the vital life of the community is dependent on a thriving library.”ÊÊÊÊ

Maria Tonelli, who manages the Stetson Branch in Dixwell, said she hopes the library system can return to normal operating hours soon.

“It has certainly made its effects felt — we’re looking forward to better times,” she said. “We’re hoping that as the fiscal year goes on, maybe they’ll come up with more money.”