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Four signs are taped to the glass beside the main entrance of the Martin Luther King Memorial Library, the flagship of the District’s library system. One sign lists the library’s new, curtailed hours. Another notes that Martin Luther King will no longer open on Sundays. A third announces that the library will close Feb. 20 for Presidents Day. And a fourth reveals that the library will also close Feb. 17—not for a holiday but for an employee furlough, a money-saving measure necessitated by cuts to the library’s budget.
The signs mark a sad comedown for MLK Library. The city’s central library was intended to be a showpiece: A Mies van der Rohe building! A repository of knowledge in the nation’s capital! Supporters fondly refer to the Washington library system as “the people’s university,” open to all who thirst for information. But the well is running dry. In December, the D.C. Council enacted budget cuts to stanch the city’s fiscal hemmorhaging. The library system’s budget lost roughly $1.5 million from its previous fiscal year, down to $20.3 million.
“We’re between a rock and a hard place,” says Assistant Director Andrew Venable, as he regretfully lists steps to tighten his agency’s belt. The Feb. 17 furlough is the first of 10 more such days planned for this year; on each furlough day, the entire library system will close. Seventeen of the city’s branch libraries will also cut 15 hours from their weekly schedules. And the system as a whole will trim 34 people from its staff of 442.
Such reductions are certain to cut patronage as well. When similar budget pressures forced the system to enact furloughs in 1993, library use dropped for the first time in years. Systemwide circulation fell by 9 percent, and circulation of juvenile books—a good measure of children’s use—fell by a whopping 11.5 percent.
This round of cuts will strike even deeper, and will particularly hurt the people who most need libraries. “Public libraries are really the last refuge of adults seeking free information,” says Teresa Sweeney, executive director of Literacy Volunteers of America-National Capital Area. “They’re particularly significant for adults who lack higher education and who depend on libraries for newspapers and magazines. They turn to libraries for job-searching materials and for children’s books. And most libraries have literacy services, supporting programs like ours. For many of these people, libraries are a resource of last resort.”
She notes that closing the library on Sunday particularly discourages children and people who work during the week. “Weekends are the time when people go to the library with their families,” she explains. “Cutting prime user time just adds to the education problems in D.C. All these habits that groups like mine try to inculcate depend on public libraries.”
Assistant Director Venable worries that this round of cuts might not be the last. Future cuts might require closing some of the library’s branches, a threat narrowly averted during the latest round of budget wrangling.
And even as the system’s budget shrinks, Venable notes, the library’s mission grows. He dreams of the Internet, territory the District system has yet to explore. Washington lags behind libraries in Maryland and Virginia, which offer their patrons a range of on-line services. Venable notes that Washingtonians arguably need public Net access more than their suburban neighbors: An astounding 13 percent of all District homes are not wired for telephones, much less capable of plugging in a modem.
Against all reason, Venable professes optimism. He dreams of Internet-connected computer terminals, up and booted in time for the library’s centennial celebration next year. And when the American Library Association gathers here in 1998, Venable wants his peers to envy the District’s entire library system.
At the moment, there’s not much to envy. MLK Library’s bathrooms approximate the sanitary conditions of an interstate service station’s. In winter, half the patrons appear to be homeless, less interested in magazines or books than in the library’s heat and running water. And even the heat isn’t dependable.
Last week, visitors entering through MLK’s main door ran smack into an unintentional symbol of the library’s sorry state. A large, free-standing bulletin board blocked the door that opens onto the library’s grand hall. The measure was intended to trap heat inside the library, but the badly marked detour also trapped would-be patrons in the glassed-in anteroom, able to see the library but not sure how to enter.
Around 10 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 8, two women circled the room, lost at the maze’s beginning. A tiny temporary sign pointed toward a dim passageway leading to Room 110, but the detour looked highly unofficial. Finally, a homeless man, obviously familiar with the building’s secrets, entered the anteroom and plunged fearlessly down the dim hallway. Without pause, he opened Room 110’s closed door, marked “PRIVATE.” The women followed, emerging at last in the popular-books section.
The little vignette speaks volumes. Despite the budget cuts, the library remains open. But actually using it requires perseverance.