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Posted at 12:30 PM ET, 10/02/2011

Closing libraries on Sunday is a scandal

Editor’s note on Oct. 3 11:54 a.m.: Reporting for this item was done before D.C. authorities announced they were reversing their decision. Mayor Vincent C. Gray said Friday the King library will stay open on Sundays.

The last library to remain open on Sunday in Washington, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, is closed today and will remain closed on Sundays because of budget cuts. This should be seen as a scandal, not just a sign of troubled economic times.

What’s the immediate impact? Said Nancy Davenport, director of D.C. library services:

“We have the largest number of freely available computers and Internet access of any place in the city. So people won’t be looking for jobs. They won’t be doing homework. They won’t be talking to their friends and colleagues in other places. They won’t be in our reading rooms.”

Public and school libraries matter in important academic and economic ways.

In a paper written by Stephen Krashen, a literacy expert and professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, for President Obama’s transition team in December 2008:

*Numerous studies in cities across the country have shown that quality public and school libraries are related to better reading achievement on the local, state and international levels.

*Libraries are especially important for children who live in poverty, often serving as their only source of books.

*Poor children are the least likely to have access to quality libraries or to attend schools with libraries that have credentialed librarians.

*Providing access to books is not enough: The presence of librarians and overall staffing contributes to reading achievement.

There have also been studies done on “return on investment” of public libraries to a community, and those consistently show a high economic return. For example, a 2010 paper called “The Economic Value of the Free Library in Philadelphia”says that the value of library services Philadelphians used to learn to read and acquire working skills totaled $21.8 million for fiscal year 2010:

* $18.4 million in literacy-related reading & lending

* $2.6 million in literacy related programming

* $818,000 in literacy-related online activities

Ten percent of survey respondents — or 10,788 people — reported that “ I couldn’t have learned to read without the library.”And 13 percent of survey respondents — or 14,024 people — reported that they taught someone else to read and could not have done it without the Free Library.

The American Library Association, in its Condition of U.S. Libraries, Trends: 1999-2009 , shows that library use rose over the decade, even with budget cuts and the rise of technology that allows people to download their own books at home.

Across the country libraries have taken financial hits, forcing branches to reduce hours, staff, maintenance and offerings, or close.

In the past five years the D.C. libraries have lost 100 positions out of about 500, Davenport said. In March 2009, the District’s library system began operating with reduced service hours because of budget problems, and staff began working more double and triple shifts.

Yet there was money in the city’s capital budget to continue to build new branches — even though there wasn’t sufficient money to maintain and staff existing ones.

My colleague Nikita Stewart wrote in this story that D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray(D) is fighting with the D.C. Public Library Board of Trustees and an organization called the Friends of Bellevue Library over the mayor’s effort to rename the new $15 million library — designed by a renowned architect — that is set to open in a few months.

The mayor might do better spending his time worrying about keeping libraries open and not what they are named.

The disconnect between capital budgets and funding for day to day staffing and maintenance is not singular to the District, but that fact doesn’t make it any better for D.C. residents who now have no public library to use on Sundays.

The city’s 24 neighborhood libraries closed on Sundays a few years ago, leaving the MLK library as the last branch in the nation’s capital to have been open on Sundays, Davenport said. It was decided to keep MLK open because it is the largest public library in the city, has the most resources and is served by all five Metro lines, making it the easiest for city residents to access.

Sundays had been remarkably busy, she said, with as many books being checked out for the four hours it was open than any other four-hour period.

It cost $316,000 a year to keep MLK open for four hours on Sunday (and about $50,000 to keep a neighborhood library open for four hours on Sundays for a year). If that sounds like a lot, it isn’t, considering the rewards that people get from library use.

What should we make of a great nation’s capital city when it can’t keep a single public library open on Sundays?

Krashen started his paper with this quote from author Isaac Asimov, taken from his autobiography I Asimov :

“When I read about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that American society has found one more way to destroy itself.”

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By  |  12:30 PM ET, 10/02/2011

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