COLUMN ONE : Saving the Temples of Literacy : Libraries took the brunt of service cuts while operating costs were soaring. Now, in some cities, they are a cause as chic as the opera.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The biggest, most expensive municipal library building in America--a $175-million, block-square, 10-story bibliophiles' palace--will open in Chicago late next year with just one flaw: Books will be in short supply.

Moreover, this city's 88 branch libraries, many of them little more than storefronts, have other serious problems. Among them are "dilapidated facilities, damaged and stolen collections and too few personnel," according to a report of the Chicago Public Library Foundation.

Conditions at a few branch libraries are so bad that "one of the first priorities is for extermination services," foundation administrator Claire Oaks said. The vermin range from fleas to rats.

"We were a major library in the world at the turn of the century," said John B. Duff, Chicago's library commissioner. "We're not any longer."

Chicago, with a pantheon of world class cultural and educational institutions, "neglected" its library system--the nation's second largest--"for more than two decades," the report concluded, and while that appears to be changing, Chicago is not the only community struggling to rebuild its library.

Across the country, public libraries large and small have become the stepchildren of financially strapped local and state governments and victims of costs for books, periodicals and personnel. They have been particularly hard hit in the last 10 years.

Libraries have shortened their hours, closed branches, reduced staffs and, tragically, bought fewer and fewer books and periodicals. As a result, the value of public libraries has been diminished at a time when they are needed most--when education is a national priority and illiteracy is a debilitating problem for tens of millions of people.

Boston deferred opening a major literacy center this year "because we don't have the money to staff it," said Arthur Curley, director of the Boston Public Library.

"Many libraries are dying a slow death, diluting services, constantly fighting for funds," said Patrick O'Brien, director of the Dallas library system. "Libraries aren't sexy agencies. We don't have the glamour that inspires public outrage when our funding is cut. . . . If there is a limited amount of public money (government) is going to deal with what's visible--potholes in the streets, police protection."

"The need is incredible," said Gary Strong, California's state librarian.

In their sometimes desperate search for money, large public library systems in cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles increasingly are turning to the philanthropic community and to private industry. In some cities, voters have approved tax increases specifically for library services.

Troubled libraries can be found from Boston to San Diego. The Library of Congress, with more than 90 million items in its collection, is short of money. So is the little 40,000-volume library in Hartwell, Ga. In Missouri, an estimated 365,000 people have no access to a public library, and many others must use libraries that are open only eight hours a week.

"A former president of the (San Diego) library commission once described this building as a disgrace even for a backward, Third-World country," city librarian William W. Sannwald said. "It's really a depressing situation."

Some of the libraries that have suffered most appear to be on the threshold of recovery. In California, communities that cut library spending as they adjusted budgets after passage of the Proposition 13 tax-limiting initiative are now restoring services as rising property values bring in new revenue. Elsewhere in the nation, Dallas, New Orleans and Atlanta are rebuilding their collections.

For the first time in decades, Chicago's library system is being taken seriously by both politicians and longtime supporters of museums, the opera and the symphony. It is now also chic to support the public library. In 1985, the library collected a measly $1,200 in contributions. In the last three years, more than $7 million in donations has been pledged.

"It's a fertile field," said Marian (Cindy) Pritzker, who turned her attention from the opera, the art institute and the Museum of Science and Industry to presiding over both the Chicago Public Library Board and the Chicago Public Library Foundation. (Her husband, Jay--often described in print as one of the wealthiest men in Chicago--heads Hyatt hotels.)

In general, however, the libraries on which millions of urban and rural Americans depend are struggling to survive. And for a peculiarly American institution founded by Benjamin Franklin, that is both a tragedy and a national embarrassment.

"It's difficult for librarians to understand the labeling of the President or a governor or whomever the 'education person,' when there's not a whole lot attention given to the needs of libraries," said Monteria Hightower, Missouri's associate commissioner of libraries.

One reason librarians cite for their fiscal woes is the amorphous character of a public library. Unlike most agencies of government, departments that fix streets, supply drinking water or collect refuse, the library's mission is not specific.

"Libraries are vulnerable to cutbacks because their necessity is not as obvious as police or fire protection," said Patricia Smith, executive director of the 5,000-member Texas Library Assn. "But every time a library service is cut, there is a lost opportunity for someone to make a better, more informed decision, to advance himself in society . . . and a series of lost opportunities eventually results in the community itself suffering."

Librarians also cite their own lack of political expertise. "You've got to be a politician," Chicago library commissioner Duff said.

"Too often, librarians think this is a self-evident truth: that libraries should be supported and they shouldn't have to do anything more about it," said Duff, an historian and former Massachusetts chancellor of higher education. "They've got to get out and make a case (for libraries) and they've got to be tough about it--single-minded about it."

"Public libraries serve very different roles for very different people at different stages in life," said Eleanor Jo Rodger, executive director of the Public Library Assn. "We have an increasingly diverse community to serve--old people living longer, waves of immigrants, increasing gaps between rich and poor. . . . If we lose the large urban libraries, we lose cultural institutions."

For many, the library is a place to go for information, to exchange ideas, to hear a concert or look at old magazines. Scholars work there; homeless people rest there. Immigrants study English there; illiterates learn to read there. It is a place where children can exercise their imaginations and adults can refresh their memories. Libraries are depositories of facts, archives, rare collections and places to borrow best-sellers for free.

"We think of the public library as the university of the people," Oaks said. "Anyone, from scholars to bag ladies, should have equal access to the public library. It is the public institution that is most charged with protecting the public's right to know and the public's right to information."

Rodger said: "The educational system gets (students) for 12 years, we get them for the rest of their lives, but the public perception is that (libraries are optional) and therefore (library needs) are less urgent."

"When there is cutting to be done, libraries are usually cut first," Hightower said.

The precedent is set right at the top. President Bush has proposed that federal aid to library construction and services be eliminated from the federal budget, a proposal that Congress is likely to reject.

Still, Duff said: "The President, in doing that, sends a very bad message."

Perhaps, too, does Congress. Its own Library of Congress is having some of the same money problems as many of the nation's smallest libraries.

"The library has been allowed to fall behind," said Library of Congress librarian James H. Billington. "This library is increasingly unable to carry out its mission because of inadequate funding.

"On best-sellers we can only afford one copy per book, which puts a strain on the people," lamented Art Bisso, director of the Hart County Library in Hartwell, Ga. "We can only run one children's summer reading program because we are so shorthanded. We do the best with what we can."

New York City's 82-branch library system has seen its budget chopped by $3.2 million in the last two years, and Mayor David N. Dinkins has proposed a further $2 million in cuts for next year. New York state, which helps to support the city's system, has not increased library funds for the last three years.

"We're looking at a very difficult time," said Bernice MacDonald, deputy director of the New York branch libraries.

City Council members in San Diego are considering budget proposals that would trim between $4 million and $8 million from an annual library budget of $13 million. In a worst-case scenario, City Librarian Sannwald, said, "we'd have to close a lot of branches, severely restrict hours at other branches--and we'd be buying no new books or other media."

Libraries in Kansas are 250,000 volumes "below even a minimum standard that we have set for information services," said Duane Johnson, the state librarian. He added: "We are remarkably inadequate of very basic services."

With a 13% to 15% rise in costs over the last five years, Denver's current public library budget is only 6%, or $800,000, larger than it was in 1985. "Reduced resources do not mean you fold your tent, suck your thumb and say 'poor me,' " Denver Librarian Rick Ashton said.

While library budgets have been shrinking, costs, in some cases, have been racing ahead of the general rate of inflation.

For example, in 1977, the Chicago Public Library could buy 77,000 items for $1 million. Last year, that amount of money would purchase only 32,000 items--a reduction in buying power of more than 58%.

Book and periodical prices soared in the 1980s, while the budget crunch was at its worst. Between 1977 and 1986, prices for hardcover fiction works rose 162% and periodical prices climbed an astounding 264%, according to data from R. R. Bowker Co.

Though it is not massive, there is a public backlash against library cutbacks.

Hundreds of people demonstrated in a Chicago neighborhood two weeks ago because a library that burned last Christmas Eve had not been replaced. The protest reportedly prompted Mayor Richard M. Daley to urge quietly that the library board find a new location immediately. In New York last month, 700 people rallied against cutting city funds for branch libraries and succeeded in getting some of the money restored.

In both New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La., voter approval of property tax increases in the mid-1980s have significantly improved library revenues. In Baton Rouge, a special 10-year property tax is generating $8.5 million for the local library system, which had a budget of $2.3 million in 1985.

"I think when the community saw they may lose their libraries, they were mobilized into action," said John Richards, director of the city's libraries. "Sometimes it takes a dramatic situation for people to appreciate what they might otherwise take for granted."

Another encouraging trend is the willingness of foundations, big businesses and library users to help keep books accessible. Many librarians cite this as perhaps the most positive aspect of raising money to supplement tax dollars.

For example, in Los Angeles, mounting problems--particularly a fire that destroyed the downtown central library in April, 1986--have brought an outpouring of public and corporate support.

"Libraries have been like mother and apple pie--they just are there," said Martha D. Katsufrakis, president of the Los Angeles city library commission, "but the tragedy of the fires brought out the fact that, hey, you can't take them for granted."

A campaign to raise $10 million for replacement of the books, magazines and documents destroyed in the fire surpassed that goal. Donations ranged from a few dollars to $10,000 from Theodor (Dr. Seuss) Geisel to $2 million from the J. Paul Getty Trust.

Chicago's private fund-raising effort has complemented city and state efforts in one of the biggest building campaigns in the country. In addition to the central library, the city is replacing or remodeling about a third of its branches.

Commissioner Duff estimated that it may take five years and an investment of perhaps $15 million to give the new downtown library a "respectable collection."

"We are going to have a well-stocked library. If it isn't at the very opening, it certainly is going to come fast," Pritzker said.

Contributors to this story were staff writers Paul Feldman, Gregory Johnson, Adrianne Goodman, Amy Louise Kazmin, Lynn Smith in California and Jason B. Johnson in Washington; national staff researchers Edith Stanley, Lianne Hart, Ann Rovin, Lisa Romaine, Anna M. Virtue, and Leslie Eringaard, and editorial librarian James Cady.

LIBRARY FORTUNES VARY

California libraries are being divided 'between the haves and the have-nots.' A14

Spending on Libraries Per capita expenditures for all materials at public libraries City or County Baltimore County: $5.94 Cincinnati & Hamilton County: 5.91 Cuyahoga County (Ohio): 5.72 Atlanta-Fulton County (Georgia): 4.83 Kansas City: 4.05 Pasadena: 4.04 Cleveland Pulbic; 3.51 Queens (NY): 3.37 Philadelphia: 3.01 Glendale: 2.98 Orange County: 2.96 St. Louis County: 2.67 Ventura County: 2.57 San Francisco: 2.53 Chicago: 2.25 Long Beach: 2.21 Brooklyn: 2.19 San Diego: 2.16 Dallas: 2.08 LA County: 2.06 Houston: 1.80 LA City: 1.37 Detroit: 1.31 San Diego County: 1.15 San Bernardino County: 1.06 Source: American Library Assn. Date for 1988 fiscal year (latest available)

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