- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 16, 2002

City officials noted chronic problems in the D.C. public library system yesterday and expressed the desire if not the means to improve the libraries' buildings, funding, staffing and collections.
"The libraries have been greatly underappreciated by government," said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat. "Every year I see us trying to hold the line. We really don't look at how we can improve them or meet their needs."
Council member Adrian M. Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat, recited a litany of problems.
"The collections could be improved, the buildings certainly could be improved and of course the hours could be longer," Mr. Fenty said. "In spite of all that, I have seen some improvements to the facilities of some libraries in my neighborhoods recently."
The Washington Times reported yesterday that years of neglect are apparent in the District's 26 branch libraries, many of which house outdated materials in poorly lit rooms in dilapidated buildings, including the Martin Luther King Jr. library at 901 G St. NW, the city's main branch.
Library officials said there is little they can do to maintain the same level of service as their costs increase and their annual budgets decrease. Recently, the library system's $26 million budget was cut by $587,000; a cut of $2 million had been planned.
Funds for books and other materials haven'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.
Library officials said that 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 budget is about 0.47 percent of the city's $5.5 billion budget.
Mr. Mendelson said that in the past year, the council was able to avoid having to close libraries extra days by taxing out-of-jurisdiction municipal bonds. That initiative helped close a budget deficit of $323 million that might have required more cuts to the library system.
"The residents out there that use the libraries are disgusted," Mr. Mendelson said. "It is good that we haven't cut the library funding as drastically as we have other programs, but the other side is that we haven't increased funding either. These libraries get surprisingly good use and little attention."
A few are beginning to get attention.
Four branches Tenley-Friendship, Benning, Watha T. Daniel/Shaw and Anacostia are slated to be renovated in the next two years as part of a $225 million, 10-year overhaul of city libraries.
And 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.
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," Mr. Williams said through a spokesman. "But finding money for that kind of capital project is difficult."
He added that some branches may need to be consolidated to improve service.


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