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Washington Post

January 28, 2003

Budget Boost Overdue, Nation's Libraries Say

Author: Linton Weeks; Washington Post Staff Writer

Edition: F
Section: Style
Page: C8

Estimated printed pages: 3

Article Text:

Ask a librarian and she'll tell you that in Seattle, budgetary bad times forced the system -- which has 24 libraries -- to shut down for two weeks last year. The Baltimore public library has closed five branches and reduced the budgets for materials and equipment. Binghamton, N.Y., is closing four of its five libraries. Services at 67 of the New York Public Library's 85 branches have been cut to five days a week. The reopening of the renovated Bethesda library has been delayed because of money woes. And in the District, the budget for new books and materials has been stagnant for a decade.

"We can no longer afford to be silent about the drastic cuts forcing libraries to close early, lay off experienced staff, eliminate periodical and book budgets and reduce programs and services," American Library Association President Maurice J. Freedman announced at his organization's annual meeting, which runs through tomorrow in Philadelphia. There among the more than 10,000 librarians and library industry folks, he launched the group's Save America's Libraries campaign.

In an interview, Freedman, who is also the library director in Westchester County, N.Y., said, "Library services have gone up dramatically as the economic downturn has kicked in." That is creating a funding nightmare.

Molly Raphael said amen. Raphael, director of the District's public library system -- which has 26 branches and outlets -- said that her libraries are suffering "from two to three decades of underfunding."

She said: There is not enough money to buy more copies of highly requested bestsellers, for instance, because book prices keep rising. The system can't afford to buy new databases or additional magazine and periodical subscriptions. And, she added, "People aren't finding what they need in the library."

The system, she explained, has more facilities than it had 30 years ago, but a smaller staff -- about 400 compared with about 600. That translates into shorter operating hours and fewer services. For example, the library doesn't provide the range of outreach services it once did.

"We can't work with charter schools in the way we might," Raphael said. "And it limits us in the number of class visits we can take. We don't have the number of staff members to service the visits that we used to."

The library is not able to provide sufficient "preschool development and reading readiness," Raphael said.

She also said that her system's buildings are falling apart. Six were built before World War II, the oldest in 1911. "The building maintenance budget has been woefully inadequate for decades," she said.

There are bright spots, Raphael said. The system is either renovating or rebuilding four branches. But she said that her library, like libraries everywhere, is operating on limited funds, "as the states and localities deal with shortfalls."

Libraries "are seen as easy targets for budget cuts," she said. "We are about to reduce hours and it's still going to be a struggle for us."

But at the same time the librarians were singing the blues, the White House announced that President Bush is pushing for greater federal funding of public libraries and museums. After all, he is married to a former librarian. Laura Bush made the announcement that next month, when the president sends his 2004 budget to Congress for consideration, it will contain $20 million to help libraries and museums recruit and train librarians. Last time around, Bush's budget earmarked $10 million for recruiting.

Freedman, the ALA president, said he applauded Bush's interest: "That's going to help get graduates through library school."

But those graduates, he said, "will apply for positions that don't exist. Because libraries can't pay for them."

Robert Martin, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services -- the group that will administer the funds -- said in a statement: "In preparing to make the first grants for this initiative, we heard compelling stories about the need for librarians and a wealth of ideas for creative solutions. The library community is grateful to the president and Mrs. Bush for their commitment to learning and to libraries."

"That's a welcome thing," Freedman agreed. "Libraries in America are suffering from two things. Librarians are predominantly female and underpaid. Pay is inequitable. We have a recruitment problem based on our salaries. And second, we are facing the reality of today -- the graying of our profession."

According to the ALA, about one-fourth of the nation's 125,000 librarians will reach retirement age by 2009.

However, Freedman said of the president's request, "that's not going to solve the problems of the library that needs to be saved today."

The White House is also asking Congress for $15 million for matching library grants to states to support outreach programs.

"Terrific," Freedman said. "But I would have to add caution. With the massive cuts in library funding, the states are going to be hard-pressed to find matching money."

Copyright 2003 The Washington Post
Record Number: 012803XC08Bu988434