Activists challenged District leaders yesterday to fix the ailing public library system before the city continues its push to bring a Major League Baseball franchise to Washington.

Carrying signs bearing such slogans as "Books Not Baseball," about 60 supporters of the D.C. Public Library system rallied at the Wilson Building, then aired their concerns at a library budget hearing before the D.C. Council.

While a delegation of D.C. officials were in Phoenix yesterday to make a proposal to baseball leaders, library advocates back home said they were outraged that Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) has proposed slashing nearly $1 million from the library system's operating budget for fiscal 2004, which begins Oct. 1.

"We're going to tell the chief financial officer that if he tries to spend one dollar of taxpayers' money on a baseball stadium, he'll have to face all the people in the District who want that money for libraries," Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate and former presidential candidate, told the assembled activists. Nader has launched a private fundraising effort called the D.C. Library Renaissance Project.

Williams's proposal is contained in his $5.6 billion spending plan, which is being considered by the council. Under the mayor's plan, the libraries' operating budget would be about $25.8 million for the next fiscal year. Money for capital improvements in the libraries also could be cut, officials said.

Williams is trying to gain council support for a ballpark financing package worth about $275 million at a time when officials project a budget shortfall nearly that large through the end of next year.

City leaders are cutting library funds "out of ignorance and a misunderstanding of the priorities," said Sophy Burnham of Georgetown, who attended the rally yesterday. "I think the money should go into the libraries, but they put it toward filling every pothole instead."

Williams's spokesman, Tony Bullock, took exception to the strategy of tying together the baseball stadium and libraries. He said the baseball financing plan has no relation to the fiscal 2004 operating budget.

"Clearly, we would like the libraries to have more money," Bullock said. "The problem is, we have no money available to give to them now."

City officials are looking for spending cuts because the District's budget is projected to be out of balance by $127 million this year and $129 million next year. The library cuts proposed by Williams are "manageable," Bullock said. "Good management [by the library board] could accommodate that. We look to the board to be creative and enlist the services of high-profile individuals like Mr. Nader to bring in private resources."

But library officials said that if the budget cuts are adopted, two branches will have to be closed. Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), head of the committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation, said he hopes the council will restore the money to the libraries.

"We will not let them take that cut," Chavous said. "This is a priority of the committee and of mine, and we'll find the money."

Activists said that years of budget cuts have turned most of the city's 27 libraries into shells of what they should be. Library buildings are crumbling, and book collections are becoming tattered because of insufficient funds, activists said. The system has been forced to reduce staffing and hours of operation, recently cutting back to being open five days a week instead of six.

"We need to fully fund the library and stop nickel-and-diming it to death," said Alexander M. Padro, a library board member

Of the assembled crowd, Padro said: "This is the first time in a long time the council will see the rank-and-file citizens come to say, 'We believe the library should be fully funded.' The council has not heard that from the public in a long time."