All across nation, budget trimmers throw the book at public libraries Even prosperous areas feel loss of services

April 28, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON — A story yesterday about library problems nationwide shoul have said that locally it was Baltimore County which was forced to close eight mini-branches.

The Evening Sun regrets the error.

WASHINGTON -- In the prosperous Washington suburb oFairfax County, Va., where family incomes are among the highest in the nation, there's big trouble at a venerable institution: the public library.

In recent months, orders have been canceled for $1 million worth of books, hours reduced at 22 branches, some overdue fines doubled, a bookmobile eliminated and a freeze placed on buying videotapes and audio tapes.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The reason: a $2 million budget cut.

"We've fallen behind a hundred thousand volumes," library director Edwin S. Clay III noted sadly.

Fairfax County is not alone. Public libraries across the nation are facing draconian cutbacks in funding and services as politicians struggle to deal with slumping tax revenues and rising costs of education, public safety and health.

The library, frequently without strong support from unions, special interests or the public, has been an increasingly attractive target for budget cutters.

* Baltimore has eliminated its eight mini-libraries and a full-service branch.

* San Francisco's mayor is proposing a $4.7 million cut in the city's library budget, one that would eliminate 17 library branches and limit the remaining nine to children's-only libraries.

* Statewide, public libraries in California will buy at least 826,000 fewer items this year than last year.

* Over the past three years, budget cuts have forced the Detroit Public Library to cut hours at its main branch, terminate its three bookmobiles and eliminate 30 jobs.

Ironically, these cuts are coming at a time when libraries are being turned to as an important resource for the unemployed, and in efforts to better education and battle illiteracy.

"What we're talking about is an impact on the education of our citizens," said Sandy Dolnick, executive director and founder of Friends of Libraries USA (FOLUSA), a library advocacy group. "Society is the one that suffers."

Ms. Dolnick said libraries have to fight constantly for enough money: "Every year they [libraries] go back to the table they have to fight for their tiny little scrap of the pie."

To counter the bleak fiscal trend, some formerly staid library advocates are fighting back politically, rallying supporters to help argue their cases before local lawmakers.

When the Fairfax system was battling its budget cuts, the public outcry was strong enough to get $500,000 restored to keep mini-libraries open.

In San Francisco, supporters have mobbed meetings held by the mayor in hopes of persuading him to come up with more money. They have also flooded his office with letters and postcards.

Detroit citizens have increased property taxes by more than $5 million over the past three years to help keep their libraries open.

The American Library Association has launched a nationwide "Write for America's Libraries" campaign. The ALA is urging people to write, in 100 words or less, how the library has changed or made a difference in their lives. The address is 50 E. Huron St., Chicago, Ill. 60611. The testimonials will be used to persuade lawmakers across the country of the need for full library funding.

Not everyone feels the library cuts are all bad, however. Charles Robinson, director of the Baltimore County Public Library, thinks his library system has been bettered by the loss of nine branches.

"It's a healthy thing," said Mr. Robinson, reasoning that more attention can now be focused on improving the remaining 15 libraries instead of trying to maintain 24.

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