WASHINGTON -- The Newark, N.J., Public Library will buy 3,500 fewer books this year -- a 10 percent cut. Dallas eliminated 50 librarian and support positions and canceled the free film series and brown-bag lunch programs at its public libraries. New York City cut $25 million in funding for its more than 200 libraries. And some 20 library branches in Massachusetts recently closed.
With state and local government budgets being squeezed by the recession, public libraries -- particularly in big cities in the Northeast, parts of California and Michigan -- are being forced to cut back on everything from adult literacy programs to on-line computer database services. Some have instituted layoffs, cut their hours or stopped buying books.
This bleak financial picture prompted librarians from around the country to demonstrate in Washington yesterday for more financial help from President Bush and Congress at the final stop a six-city "Rally on Wheels." The tour was organized by the American Library Association.
The rally -- complete with a sign reading "Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries" -- attracted only a few hundred librarians, schoolchildren and tourists. It was barely noisier than your average reading room.
It coincided with the second White House Conference on Library and Information Services, which will look at the condition of the nation's libraries and make recommendations for funding to Mr. Bush.
Locked in a struggle for shrinking funds with such basic services as police and fire protection, public libraries are looking more and more like the losers in state and local government budget plans.
"Potholes are more important than books sometimes," said Patrick O'Brien, director of libraries for the city of Dallas.
Libraries get roughly 80 percent of their money from local governments and less than 2 percent from the federal government, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The rest comes from the states and private sources.
Larry LaMoure, a consultant to the White House conference, said the crisis was more regional in nature, with cities the hardest hit.
"Local public libraries with separate taxing authority, especially in cities in the Northeast and California, are worse off than most county libraries or rural libraries, where they receive a lot of state aid," Mr. LaMoure said.
While a 1989 National Center for Education Statistics survey showed that the nation's libraries spent an average of $16.46 per person in 1989 compared with $12.57 in 1982, Mr. LaMoure said that the increase was misleading.
"The cost of books and periodicals, as well as the cost of automation, has gone up dramatically, far outstripping the tiny increase," he said.
Libraries may also be suffering because of their traditionally low profile, said Patricia Glass Schuman, incoming president of the American Library Association.
James Billington, head of the Library of Congress, added: "It looks easy to cut libraries, because books are inert. But libraries are the lifeblood of democracy."