Feeling The Pinch, D.C. Libraries Cutting Back

City leaders have slashed the library budget by 11 percent, to $40 million. Above, Takoma Park Library in Northwest D.C.
City leaders have slashed the library budget by 11 percent, to $40 million. Above, Takoma Park Library in Northwest D.C. (Ricky Carioti - The Washington Post)
By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 18, 2009

The D.C. bookmobile will be parked, neighborhood libraries will close on Sundays and all city libraries will close on Monday holidays beginning Oct. 5 to help save $4.8 million, as the District tries to cope with its budget crunch.

The library cutbacks are one of a number of service reductions that District residents will feel when the 2010 fiscal year begins Oct. 1. As in most jurisdictions in the Washington region, the city's revenue is down because of the recession. So city leaders had to find ways to close a potential $666 million budget gap over three years, pushing the Fenty administration to cut spending plans for all departments and the council to raise sales and cigarette taxes.

Ginnie Cooper, the D.C. Public Library's chief librarian, said Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and council members had to make the tough decision to slash the library budget by 11 percent, to $40 million. But, she said, the agency hopes to provide adequate services with the help of volunteers and by opening Martin Luther King Jr. Library, the central library, on Sundays so the public has seven days of access to the system.

Currently, the system opens all the neighborhood libraries on Sundays, and one in each ward on Monday holidays. Cooper said that is no longer possible with the budget cuts.

Instead of sparsely staffing all 25 libraries, she said, the city will focus on offering its books, computers and research materials at King. The King library has "Metro accessibility, and it's busy on Sundays," Cooper said. "People make it a destination."

"We're very pleased that we still have service seven days a week," she said. "A lot of our colleagues around the country can't say that."

But the downtown library will also have some hours reduced. On Mondays and Tuesdays, it will open from noon to 9 p.m. instead of 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The city's only bookmobile, which is called the Xtreme Mobile, went to about 15 schools this fiscal year. "Instead, that staff will go to the libraries" while continuing to visit schools and provide literacy programs, Cooper said.

Robin Diener, an advocate for libraries who heads the DC Library Renaissance Project, a nonprofit founded by Ralph Nader to encourage system improvements, said the Sunday cut was "an easy thing do."

"It's difficult to staff because Sundays are not popular among employees," she said. But, she said, "they are very popular from the public's point of view."

She said she guessed residents "will do what they have to do" to get to the central library, but she wished the system would lean on volunteers to maintain Sunday hours.

Cooper said the system remains on track with its capital projects, building six libraries in the next fiscal year. Those are Watha T. Daniels/Shaw, Georgetown, Anacostia, Benning, Northwest One and Deanwood.

But Chris Otten, community organizer with the Library Renaissance Project, said the library system's priorities are misplaced. "They are creating these large, expensive buildings, and they are going to sit empty for hours," he said. "It's really ridiculous."

The group has been calling for the city to look closely at the needs of all communities and draft a comprehensive needs plan.

Cooper said the library system is prepared to handle six more libraries. "The planning allows for . . . the staffing," she said. "We think we'll do fine. These are the first buildings we will have in many decades."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company