The Library Joins the Dinosaurs

December 08, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES. — Los Angeles -- A library, someone once said, is the diary of the human race. If so, the days are getting shorter for California.

In the same year that the new mayor of Los Angeles, Richard Riordan, tried to sell the city's restored main library to Philip Morris Inc. for $70 million, there were these other milestones in the history of slaking this desert state's thirst for knowledge:

* Los Angeles County closed nine of the county's 97 branch libraries -- and took one bookmobile off the streets.

* The Merced County Board of Supervisors voted two weeks ago to close down all of the 19 branch libraries serving 200,000 residents of that rural county in the San Joaquin Valley.

* In Alameda County, which includes the city of Oakland, the library budget was cut from $16.6 million to $7.8 million.

* The state librarian announced, before the Merced closings, that in 1993, 25 libraries were closed and book budgets dropped an average of 25 percent. The number of total hours libraries were open declined 14 percent.

* Overall, this fiscal year, spending on public libraries by the state's counties and municipalities was reduced $47 million, including a $15 million decrease in book budgets and more than a $24 million cut in staff salaries.

So it goes in California, which staggers along in the spirit of Proposition 13, the 1978 tax-cutting and tax-capping initiative. There is no money for counties, cities and towns, say local officials, who once collected the property taxes reduced by the Jarvis-Gann Amendment, named for the initiators of Prop 13. The localities were particularly hard-hit this year when Gov. Pete Wilson and the legislature held onto most of what is left of property taxes to balance the state budget.

In Merced and other places, supervisors and mayors complained that they had had to choose between fewer books or fewer police. They decided the hell with books; they need cops -- and there may be a lesson there.

In Merced, the decision to close the libraries, scheduled to take effect yesterday, will save $1.4 million a year, eliminating the equivalent of 35 full-time jobs. (The supervisors also voted to close most county parks.)

Nothing new in California. The first library closures began within a year after the passage of Prop 13. In 1988, Shasta County renamed its libraries ''reading rooms'' -- a euphemism coined when supervisors voted to stop buying books. How much new stuff do folks need to know up there in the north of the state?

The same thing has already happened in public-school libraries everywhere in the state. Since 1980, half the school libraries have been closed. The state's librarian-student ratio is now 1-to-8,512, compared with the national average of one librarian for every 826 students.

One more statistic: The number of visits to California's libraries actually increased last year, from 86 million to 90 million. One of the visitors, a 9-year-old fourth-grader named Jeremy Olguin of Winton, in Merced County, appeared before the Board of Supervisors there to protest the closing of the libraries. He ended his little talk by saying that he hoped that someday when he grew up he could be a librarian, then added, ''If there's still a library.''

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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