Library officials are hoping enough money surfaces to save the system, but they're preparing for a shutdown and say they're not just threatening it as a ploy.
Budget cuts across the country have caused local officials to close library branches, reduce hours and spend less money on books, computers and other materials. But officials at the American Library Association believe Camden's library system would be the first in the U.S. with multiple branches to check out entirely.
"Of all places, they're one of the places that needs free public libraries the most," said Audra Caplan, president of the Public Library Association.
The city consistently ranks as one of the nation's most impoverished. It's a place where most families don't own computers, where just one big bookstore serves the local colleges and where some of the public schools don't even have librarians.
Camden Free Public Library is a major hub for many residents and draws 150,000 visits a year.
It's a place to get online to do research, type papers, apply for jobs and check Facebook. Homeless people stop by for respite from the weather and to read. Children listen to stories, do crafts and play board games.
"If you close the library, what are the kids going to do?" asked Frank Lee, a hospital security guard who plays chess at the library's main branch nearly daily and teaches youngsters the game. "What are they going to do?"
The problem is money.
The city has a permanent financial crisis. Even when times are good, it relies heavily on the state government for support.
But the state also is in crisis. This year, Gov. Chris Christie filled an $11 billion budget deficit, largely by making cuts. Cities, schools, libraries and just about everything else are getting less from the state.
The effects are especially acute in Camden, which now has to compete with more cities for a smaller pool of special aid.
Camden Mayor Dana Redd has asked all departments in the city to cut costs by nearly one-fourth. Even police and firefighters are bracing for layoffs, though none has been announced yet.
The library received $935,000 from the city and $88,000 from the state last year.
This year, the library asked the city for $823,000 and considered the 12 percent reduction a way to share in the sacrifice, interim library director Jerome Szpila said.
But the mayor offered only $281,666 - nearly a 70 percent cut. It was too little to qualify for any state assistance, library board member and activist Frank Fulbrook said.
City Hall was closed Friday because it was a furlough day for most city workers, and Redd did not return messages left with two of her top aides.
The only thing the library could do was close, Fulbrook said. The plan, approved by the library board on Thursday, is to shutter one branch next month, then another in October and the system entirely on Dec. 31.
Twenty-one employees would lose their jobs. Szpila already is starting to work on plans for what to do with the 187,000 books and artifacts the library has acquired since it opened in 1904 with a $100,000 gift from Andrew Carnegie. They would have to be sold, donated or destroyed, he said.
In the meantime, state and national library associations are trying to come up with ways to save the library. And activists are considering where to go to ask for donations big enough to save the system.
The first goal is to try to get the city council to offer up more funding, Fulbrook said. A little over $100,000 more from the city would be enough to qualify for about $40,000 in state aid, available only if there's a minimum level of local support.
That amount should be enough to keep one branch operating, Fulbrook said.
No one could keep their voices at a whisper at the library's main branch on Friday.
Essence Paige, 24, said she stops by the library three or four times a week as she works on her GED. She uses the computers for research and word processing and the reference librarians for all sorts of help, including guiding her to books to assist her with math.
She said she has no idea where she'd get those answers without the library.
Thirty-four-year-old Curtis Williams, who works odd jobs when he can find them and reads at the library when he can't, was sitting at a table with a half-dozen novels.
He remembers eight years ago when the state put $175 million into Camden, much of it to build up the city's hospitals and universities, in an effort to attract private investment.
"You give a city $175 million and they don't even try to save some money for things like this," he lamented. "When it comes down to it - money or helping the community - it comes down to money every time."
Children's librarian Robin Guenther runs a summer reading program and always has games and crafts available, making the library the rare free spot where kids can be entertained.
On Friday, 4-year-old David Council, a library regular, gave Guenther a picture he'd made from materials in her craft box. And 5-year-old Jenessa Guzman was listening as her mother read to her from a Highlights magazine.
If the library does close, Guenther said she'll do anything she can to save her department - maybe by moving with its collection to a community center.
"If I had a room to sit and open up a library, I would," she said.