Shuttering MLK library on Sundays is close-minded

Petula Dvorak
Columnist September 26, 2011

You can do it in Fairfax, Frederick, Montgomery and Loudoun counties. In Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Poughkeepsie and Grand Rapids, even.

But in the nation’s capital?

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Nope. If you want to head to a public library on a Sunday, you’re going to come up snake eyes.

Budget cuts are to blame, of course.

With the awful decision to shutter the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library on Sundays, we have cemented our literary reputation in a most telling way: We are a Tale of Two Cities. The chasm between rich and poor, between those who have access to books and computers in their homes and those who don’t, grows wider by the day.

For those without, the public library isn’t as much about culture as it is about survival.

In an increasingly digital world, health benefits, unemployment payments and job applications are almost all done online. Where does a lot of this happen?

Yup, at the local library.

In an era when school budgets are being slashed and school-based amenities starved, libraries are the great equalizer for the city’s poorest kids. And when is it that they do their reports and studying?

“Sundays, hour-for-hour, are our busiest days,” said Marcia Warner, president of the nation’s Public Library Association, who is also the director of public libraries in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“Sunday is THE big study day.”

In D.C., the decision to join the Prince George’s County public library system in going dark on Sundays was painful but necessary, said the District’s director of library services, Nancy Davenport.

“We don’t feel picked-upon,” Davenport said. “It is what it is.”

It is a precipitous fall from where we were just a few years ago, when the city was opening stunning library branches all over town that were architecturally courageous and technologically impressive.

The library system’s 700 computers are the city’s largest source of public computers, Davenport said.

Then the operating budget to run these fancy new library buildings was cut by $10 million in four years. In 2009, library managers began juggling the library hours, closing some early and others late, staggering the hours of nearby branches, so folks had a place to go, even if it wasn’t the one closest to their home.

When it became clear that the best way to make budget would be to close on Sundays, D.C. decided to leave one library, MLK, open that day. It was close to all the Metro lines and buses.

Now the lights will be turned off there as well.

Whittling away at a vital service that levels the playing field for the city’s less-affluent youth and serves as a lifeline for others who can’t afford computers does damage that will revisit us in the future.

“It runs directly counter to our politicians’ stated objective to improve learning for our youth to shutter D.C. libraries on Sundays,” says Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, who was involved in the city task force to improve the libraries.

“But what good are they if they are closed to the public?” he said.

Exactly.

Lynch argues that any new city money should go toward restoring Sunday hours immediately.

Davenport said the libraries are on the city’s list of top 10 agencies to get cash once more money comes in.

We’re not the only ones cutting hours in this endless recession. “Sixteen percent of libraries last year reported decreased hours,” Warner reported. Sunday is often the easiest day to cut because it’s so expensive to staff.

But plenty of cities facing huge budget shortfalls protected their libraries.

Boston? “They thought about it,” Warner said, but didn’t go totally dark on Sundays.

Los Angeles? They have just one branch open. “If you think about it, for that huge population, one branch,” Warner said. “But it is something.”

Nationally, Detroit has axed Sunday hours at their libraries. Yeah. Exactly.

Ptolemy I must be spinning in his sarcophagus.

The ancient founder of the public library would agree that this institution is one of the great symbols of a civilized society. In most communities, libraries are crossroads for all kinds of people. So you’re not checking out a book? Okay, you can download one to your Kindle, take your child to starry night storytime, meet a celebrity author, see a cooking class or listen to a Friday concert on the library terrace.

Pulling the plug on one of the city services that keeps us educated and informed smacks of a fin de siecle feeling that doesn’t bode well. It’s as if the White House lawn went all patchy or the Willard Room switched to paper napkins.

Or as though we really think it’s all right to act like we’re two different cities.

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