Patrons Decry Possible Library Cutbacks

District’s Efforts to Balance Its Books Could Result in Shorter Hours

Posted August 1, 2008 at 4:27pm

Wednesday mornings have long signaled a special treat for Mary Cox’s gaggle of preschoolers: story time and arts and crafts at Northeast Neighborhood Library.

But the weekly field trips for the children at Full Gospel Tabernacle Child Development Center have become monthly outings as summer programs compete for library programming slots. And now, citywide staff eliminations are forcing D.C. public libraries to consider drastically cutting library hours, including mornings largely dedicated to children’s programming.

“That would really hurt,” the assistant teacher for 2- to 5-year olds said, adding: “The children just love hearing the words ‘field trip.’”

Facing $2 million in staff reductions, Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper announced last week that the public library system might have to scale back library hours at branches across the city. Under the plan, libraries will close on Fridays and two mornings a week beginning in October.

A move by D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty’s office to eliminate 550 vacant positions throughout the district was a blow to the library system, which suffered disproportionately. It recently lost 71 staff members because of retirement incentives offered at the beginning of the year. Not filling those positions would lead to a 14 percent staff cut across the library system, making it nearly impossible to maintain current hours.

But Cooper said she is optimistic that the system will find an alternative to reducing hours, especially after conversations last week with members of the administration and D.C. Council.

“Money will be found … and I’m sure that it will happen. I’m just not sure that it will happen yet,” she said.

Cooper said that Fridays are the slowest days at all city branches and that the morning cuts would aim to reduce overlaps in staff scheduling and compensate for the loss in positions. She also stressed the importance of keeping the libraries open in the evenings for community use.

“Circulation is pretty low [from 8 to 9 p.m.], but we know there are a lot of community meetings and programming as well,” she said.

Patrons at Capitol Hill’s two branches — Northeast and Southeast neighborhood libraries — worry about the effect the reduced hours will have on services.

Satu Haase-Webb, who brings her daughters, ages 4 and 6, to the library about once every two weeks, said she was disappointed about the changes.

“It’s too bad because it’s just another sign of underfunding in our public libraries,” she said. “I can say that in poor weather on a Friday afternoon, [it] would be a good change of scene to go to the library.”

Reducing library hours would also hurt residents who rely on the library for technology access.

Kanisha Cheadle, a rising eleventh-grader at Eastern High School, walks to the Southeast branch nearly every day to read books and use the computer. She uses the library computers for her schoolwork because her computer at home is broken.

And with all the summer storms, Nunu Deng of Eastern Market has come to rely on the library’s computers because her Internet service at home has been so unreliable. Rather than paying to use an Internet café, she decided to take advantage of her D.C. library card.

“[Cutting hours] makes no sense, especially if you have a lot of kids,” she said. “Hours should be longer on Friday — at least until 9.”

Cooper also worried about the effect on patrons. Libraries regularly host after-school groups, and local schools and programs frequently reserve the library meeting rooms, as well.

“Mornings are not heavy circulation times, but it’s when schools come to visit and it’s when daycare programs use us,” she said. “If I could do one thing, it would be to restore those Fridays.”

But she stressed her high hopes that the funding issue will be resolved before the beginning of the new fiscal year in October, when a final decisions on the hours will have to be made.

“No one intended this to happen. I think a solution will be found,” she said.