- The Washington Times - Friday, November 15, 2002

Long-standing signs of neglect are everywhere in D.C. public libraries, from peeling paint and stained ceiling tiles, to dangling insulation and exposed wires, to rows of outdated books and magazines that patrons squint to read in poor lighting.
But library officials say there is little they can do when costs keep growing as budgets shrink.
"We are trying to maintain current operation levels with even less money," said D.C. Library Director Molly Raphael. "In some places, we can't do much more than be open."
Officials recently averted a $2 million cut in their $26 million budget and devised ways to absorb $587,000 in cuts instead.
Meanwhile, the budget for books and materials hasn't increased in a decade. Staffing levels have fallen by about one-third, to 425 workers, in 30 years as three new libraries have opened. And 80-year-old buildings have seen few improvements over the years.
Signs placed recently at three branches announce months-long closures for renovation and maintenance. Other branches advertise community meetings to decide which days the libraries must close starting in January to meet budget cuts.
This is in addition to reduced hours at most of the library's 26 branches so they can be staffed with the two-person minimum required. When someone calls in sick, branches must close; there is no money for overtime.
"It's really tragic what the budget cuts have done," said one librarian at the Martin Luther King Jr. Public Library, the city's main branch. "Why can't we get books? Half of what we ordered and were budgeted for last year never arrived. And it is still a fraction of what we used to get."
Library officials say if the system were funded at "normal" levels 1 percent to 2 percent of a city's budget it could be doing "a lot better job than we are now." The library's current budget is about 0.47 percent of the city's $5.5 billion budget.
"I don't understand why we have to close off rooms," said the librarian, who asked not to be identified. "Other buildings do maintenance without shutting down. That isn't right in a city with this level of need."
About 35 percent of D.C. residents are illiterate, according to the National Institute for Literacy. The group defines illiteracy as being able to "read a little but not well enough to fill out an application, read a food label, or read a simple story to a child."
D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous, chairman of the committee that oversees libraries, says the council was able to avert large budget cuts and library closures this time.
"The challenge is that libraries are not always on everyone's radar screen the way the schools or the police are," the Ward 7 Democrat said. "What I would like to see in the future is a new main library and growth in their budget."
Four branches Tenley-Friendship, Benning, Watha T. Daniel/Shaw and Anacostia are slated to be renovated over the next two years as part of a $225 million, 10-year overhaul of city libraries.
Planning for a new central library to replace the King library on the site of the old Washington Convention Center has just started, with the support of Mayor Anthony A. Williams.
"We have a very good opportunity to excite people about their libraries," said Mr. Williams through a spokesman. "One of the saddest things is how underutilized they are. There would be greater demand to improve if there were more use of them. A new central library would help that."
The mayor says the libraries have been underfunded for years and that it took decades for them to deteriorate to this point. "It is a basic obligation of government to keep these buildings up, and we've got a big job to do," he said. "But finding money for that kind of capital project is difficult." He added that some branches may need to be consolidated to improve service.
Mrs. Raphael says when residents see and use the new libraries, they will clamor for even more change. Her goal is to rebuild every library.
"We have to build support and show people what we are talking about," she said. "We want more than new carpets inviting spaces that reach out to the community, especially those not used to using libraries.
"We need to create libraries that can become civic engagement centers, cultural links in the community owned by the people and for them, not just for tourists."
Mrs. Raphael notes that cities such as Los Angeles, Denver or Nashville, Tenn., have transformed their libraries and seen their use jump tremendously. Denver's system serves a population comparable in size to the District's with a budget that is almost twice as large.
Despite the D.C. library system's amenities a good selection of older classics and scholarly books, lectures, computers and free training many patrons hope improvements come soon.
"There are long lines in the morning because the library opens an hour later than they used to," said David Duque, adding that he uses the library to research poems he writes. "I'd like to come earlier, too, but it is closed."
Retired Library of Congress librarian Ardie Meyers says the King library is in poor shape.
"It's dreary," she says. "It's good for some books, but there aren't enough. There is no special place for meetings and lectures away from other people. They don't put much money into it, and it shows."


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