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Public Library Weighs Reduced Branch Hours

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The D.C. Public Library system is considering slashing operating hours at its flagship, neighborhood and kiosk branches by up to eight hours a week to meet tightening budget constraints that could worsen next year, officials said.

An infusion of $2 million that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said last summer would keep the libraries open normal hours will not be available because of decreases in the city's revenue projections for this year, Library Director Ginny Cooper said.

Without that money, the libraries have had to pay $280,000 in overtime costs since October, an expense that no longer is feasible, she said.

The Library Board began considering the reduced hours yesterday. It will give advice, but the decision will be made by Cooper and her staff this week. The shortened hours would take effect March 2.

Under the revised schedule, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library downtown would close 3 1/2 hours earlier than the current 9 p.m. closing time on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Neighborhood branches would open 2 1/2 hours later and close an hour earlier on weekdays, and kiosks would close one day a week, either Monday or Friday.

"We've been paying overtime at a greater rate than the budget will allow and stretching our staffing, but we can't keep on doing it," Cooper said. She added that no employees would lose their jobs.

Next year could be worse, as the library anticipates opening six branches: Georgetown, Benning Road, Anacostia, Shaw, Deanwood and at the Walker Jones school. Cooper has requested an increase of $4.6 million over this year's $47 million budget to account for greater staffing needs, but the city is wrestling with a projected revenue gap of $456 million for next year.

"Keeping the libraries open, especially in the midst of a transformation process [of opening new and renovated branches] is pretty critical," said Robin Diener, executive director of the D.C. Library Renaissance Project. "What's the point of building new libraries if you're not prepared to keep them open?"

Cooper and the Library Board had been considering decreasing operating hours last summer, but Fenty announced in August that the city had found the extra $2 million to maintain 71 staff positions in the system. But city finance officials said in December that the city faced larger revenue shortfalls than expected, largely because of the national economic meltdown.

Diener suggested the library recruit and train volunteers to keep the branches open.

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