The D.C. Council has approved a $1.8 million increase for the D.C. public library system in 2005, which will restore operating hours that were cut from the 27-branch system in 2002, council officials and library advocates said.
The 6 percent spending hike, to $31 million, means libraries will open six days a week instead of five and slightly expand their daily hours. The average weekly hours of service will increase from 40 to 52.
In addition, the council approved capital funding to open three new branches and to repair and renovate others east of the Anacostia River, said Eric Rogers, chief of staff to Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), chairman of the committee on education, libraries and recreation. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) earmarked $750,000 for capital renovations at the Mount Pleasant branch.
If city revenue grows as much as forecasters predict, libraries could receive an additional $260,000, enough to give $10,000 to each branch outside of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library downtown to develop local programs, said Martha Saccocio, co-director of the D.C. Library Renaissance Project, a private advocacy group.
Saccocio, whose renaissance project was organized by Ralph Nader two years ago, called the increase a "huge success," though only a step toward the group's goal of more than doubling library spending, from .45 percent of the city's budget to 1 percent. "There was no discussion of cutting the library budget. It was how much are we going to increase it," Saccocio said.
The increase comes after library supporters organized to combat years of neglect in a city where studies have found that about a third of D.C. adults are functionally illiterate. Many branches are physically deteriorated, short on multi-media and computer technology and filled with out-of-date books.
A computer worm and other problems disrupted all 440 city library computers for most of March. At some branches, librarians still keep track of books with paper and pen, while patrons are scarce.
The system reports 2 million visitors a year, including more than 120,000 children, who checked out 1.2 million books and other items.
According to figures compiled by the renaissance project, the nation's capital spends less than half as much on its libraries per capita as do Boston, Columbus and Denver, and less than one-fourth as much as Cleveland.
Three-fourths of the District's library budget goes to payroll and benefits. That means it spends less for library materials per capita than its suburban neighbors, despite the boom in new media, such as electronic databases, video, books-on-tape and business sources, according to the project.
Spending on maintenance is also half the national average.
"We've had more promises and less action than I'd care to recall," said George Ziener, a city resident and past head of the Federation of Friends of the D.C. Public Library.
The federation's current president, Miles S. Steele III, said activists made the difference. "It was the advocacy of the various groups coming together in a show of force. People stood up saying what needed to be done," Steele said.
In response this year, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) introduced a budget proposing a 4 percent library spending increase. The increase was part of a six-year plan to boost the number of users and raise the volume of books and other circulated materials and to cut down the time taken to fill job vacancies and respond to requests for help from users.
The council added more, transferring $500,000 from public works agencies to increase library operating hours, and $174,000 from public safety and justice departments to pay for books and supplies, Chavous aides said.
Last year, after the mayor proposed cutting nearly $1 million from the library system's operating budget, the D.C. Council restored that money and then added more. Cuts would have forced the closure of two branches, library officials said.
The mayor is expected to sign the measure after unrelated technical issues are ironed out within the next week.
The D.C. library system is operating under an interim director, Richard Jackson. Library director Molly Raphael left the system earlier this year, saying the mayor had not adequately supported libraries. A permanent successor has not been named.