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D.C. Libraries: New Buildings, Fewer Hours

What if they built new libraries and couldn't afford to let folks use them?

The D.C. library system's latest predicament isn't quite that dire, but the economic crisis is pushing the long-troubled system into a painful irony: Even as libraries director Ginnie Cooper celebrates the fact that six new libraries will open in the city in 2010--more new projects than anytime in almost half a century--budget constraints are forcing the existing branches to cut their hours, and more service reductions could be coming.

How can it be that the same system that is charging ahead with a $225 million construction binge featuring an all-star cast of world-renowned architects is also slamming the brakes on overtime, cutting opening hours, reducing staff and paring back on book purchases?

Welcome to the wonderful world of government spending, where capital budgets exist in a separate universe from operating dollars, meaning that you can build a building and then find yourself barely capable of using that building.

Anacostia-Day(1).jpg (Architect's model of new Anacostia Branch Library, scheduled for 2010 opening. Courtesy D.C. Public Library.)

"Quite frankly, I'm thrilled we're still open seven days a week," says Cooper, trying to put a decent face on the otherwise grim news. Starting March 2, the system's central downtown library will cut back from four evenings a week to two, and the neighborhood branches will each trim seven hours a week off their opening times.

All this comes even as D.C. residents, like Americans everywhere, are using libraries in sharply increasing numbers. Both because of the economy--job-seekers and people trying to boost their education gravitate to libraries to use the computers and to research career and school decisions--and because of significant improvements in the conditions and resources at some branches, the libraries are seeing more visitors, more computer use, and more circulation of books and other materials.

But Cooper says the system would need a $5 million boost in its $46.6 million operating budget to staff the buildings it will open over the next two years, and even that figure contemplates fewer hours, a smaller collection and fewer staffers than were originally planned.

Without that increase, the libraries will have to cut hours even more harshly, the director tells me. Of course, all government agencies start out the budget process with scary tales of the doom that lies ahead should their requests not be met. But in this case, the first wave of cuts is being implemented in less than two weeks.

Is one possible solution closing some of the system's least-used and most-decrepit branches? The trustees who run the library have said "that we've got to look at every option," Cooper says. She has previously told me that she is open to the idea that the District should move toward fewer, larger libraries, rather than trying to maintain the 25 locations it now supports. Already, there's a plan to close the five tiny library kiosks that were built in the 1970s to bring books to some of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods.

Does it really make sense for the D.C. system to charge ahead with its program of building small (20,000 square feet) neighborhood libraries when it's clear that the city will not be able to support a full program of opening hours, books and programs at those branches? Shouldn't the library move quickly to scale back the number of branches and make the next generation of libraries much larger and much more populated with all manner of resources? That's the path Fairfax County and other successful suburban library systems have taken, and the result is libraries that are teeming with people day and night. Does the District really need 25 libraries, some of them within easy walking distance of each other?

By Marc Fisher |  February 20, 2009; 8:40 AM ET
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