Monday, September 14, 2009

D.C. public libraries will be forced to cut staff and reduce services if the proposed $44 million budget for fiscal year 2010 is further reduced, moves that Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper says are a last resort to save money in a tough economic climate.

For the past two years, the District’s library system has seen financial decline as the city tightens its belt to survive a nationwide economic slowdown, and its effects have been felt in library hours, hiring and elsewhere. Mrs. Cooper said she has exhausted all other options for saving money.

“If our budget is cut any further, it has to come from staff because we’ve cut from everything else,” Mrs. Cooper said. “And that will be sad. … Staff and hours are together, and they’re 60 [percent] to 70 percent of our budget. When we have a budget cut, there’s not much to cut other than staff. We think we’ll be OK, but it’s tighter than any of us want it to be.

“Unless we get worse budget news in September, we are not anticipating a reduction in staff,” Mrs. Cooper said during a wide-ranging interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

Capital investments in recent years have enabled construction projects for the library system. Parklands-Turner and Northwest One will see the earliest openings, in October and November. Six more libraries are expected to open next year, with five additional libraries opening in 2011.

But a declining operating budget could lead to staff and budget cuts and pose a problem for the new construction projects, as buildings could open without enough staff to run them, Mrs. Cooper added.

“In some cases, we’re moving out of large libraries into interim libraries and then into a new building,” she said. “It’s kind of an interesting shuffle we’re doing with staff. There’ll come a point in 2011 when all the libraries under construction or being rebuilt will open, and we won’t have enough staff.”

The chief librarian also addressed the future of libraries in general and meeting the needs of consumers in a “bookless” world. As technology advances, a traditional library can struggle to reinvent itself, which is why local libraries are becoming more like community centers to attract young people.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library - the D.C. Public Library’s central facility - created a Young Adult Services Division to meet that need. The center will include Internet-accessible computers and laptops, a Nintendo Wii, a flat-screen television, an expanded materials collection and a teen-only vending area. Library officials say it is designed to meet the educational, recreational and developmental needs of teen library users.

Since Mrs. Cooper became chief of the system three years ago, the District’s libraries have seen an 80 percent growth in circulation of materials, as well as a more than quadrupling of the number of computers to more than 500 systemwide. There’s an average of 20 computers at each location.

With more than 30 years of experience in library leadership in five states, Mrs. Cooper said D.C. public libraries are still striving to compete with other libraries nationwide.

“We’re getting there,” she said. “We aren’t there yet. We’re learning from what they’re doing. Our technology is some of the best anywhere. That’s something we’re proud of.”

The libraries offer downloadable audiobooks for computers and iPods, electronic versions of books readily accessible from the Web site, video and music collections, and texting capabilities to notify customers when materials are held or available.

Despite the increase in technology, the chief librarian said that long lines of students still form after school to take advantage of the free Internet to complete research and homework.

The District’s libraries have struggled to bridge the “digital divide,” a term commonly used to describe the gap between those who have access to information through technology and those who do not.

“I could double [the number of computers] again, and we’d still have lines,” Mrs. Cooper said. “I don’t think we can ever meet that need. It’s a hard one to saturate, and that’s something felt throughout the District.”

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