Some Area Libraries Struggle to Balance Books


In Orange County, the Fountain Valley Public Library is so flush with funding that its new branch, now under construction, will feature reading lounges with fireplaces, original artwork, sculptures in the patios and a 30-foot dragon in the children's wing.

The designer library, with its striking fan-shaped building, black-and-white tile floors and color scheme of turquoise, pink and sea green, will have the architectural elan of a modern art museum.

But while the Orange County Public Library system is thriving, Shasta County's libraries are struggling for survival. The funding shortage afflicting the Northern California county is so critical that all 10 libraries closed in 1988 for seven months. Only the main facility and two branches have since reopened, but with reduced hours.

California's libraries are increasingly being divided "between the haves and the have-nots," said California State Librarian Gary E. Strong.

The surge in real estate values and explosive growth during much of the 1980s has increased property-tax revenues and created more funding for libraries in fast-growing counties such as Orange County and Los Angeles County.

But in California's poorer communities or counties where there has been little growth, libraries never have recovered from the effects of Proposition 13, the 1978 tax-cutting initiative.

"There's not much middle ground anymore . . . there's this disparity, and it's only going to become more pronounced," Strong said. "Those affluent communities with a lot of growth and the commitment to libraries are doing well. But those other areas are going to barely be able to keep their libraries open."

The late 1970s were the dark days for Southern California libraries, which faced a struggle for survival after the passage of Proposition 13. Branches were closed. Hours were cut. Librarians were fired. Budgets were slashed.

Today, many Southern California libraries still are struggling. But there are signs of resurgence, and some communities are in better shape now than at any time since Proposition 13.

The Orange County Public Library represents a shining exception to the dreary future faced by many other library systems across the country. The 27-branch library system is brimming with tax money.

The library recovered from initial cutbacks caused by Proposition 13 because the measure had less of an impact on the taxes for new home purchases, which soared during the 1980s in Orange County. A full 75% of the system's current $23-million budget for 1989-90 comes from the county's tax base, swollen from rising land and housing prices.

Moreover, the county requires community developers to pay a portion of new library costs.

The surge in funding has even enabled Orange County to provide some of the best library service in the state. And more affluent communities such as Fountain Valley can add city funds to their county funding and create impressive branch libraries.

Los Angeles County also has experienced a great deal of growth and rising property values and, as a result, the library system has made a strong recovery from the tax cuts of the late 1970s.

"Right now, we fortunately are in good shape," said County Librarian Sandra Reuben. "There's been a natural increase in funding because of the health of the real estate market in Los Angeles. This is where we differ from other parts of the state."

In Ventura County, growth has helped, but libraries "still don't have the buying power that they had had prior to 1978," said Dixie Adeniran, the director of library services for Ventura County. The most immediate problem in Ventura County is lack of space. At the Oxnard Public Library, about 4,000 unshelved books are piled on the floor in stacks several feet high, and another 12,000 books are in storage because there simply is no room on the shelves.

Because of slow-growth measures in Santa Barbara, the county library system has not greatly benefited from property-tax revenues, said Carol Keator, director of the Santa Barbara Public Library system. The downtown library, considered one of the finest small libraries in the state, receives adequate funding because city officials have made a commitment to the facility. But branches outside the city receive only limited county funding, which has not kept pace with inflation.

"There's been a significant erosion in the county's libraries," Keator said. "We've lost staff positions and service hours. And we've been unable to buy many of the books we need, or replace a lot of older materials."

And not even all the libraries in Orange County have thrived. Aside from the county system, there are nine library systems that are run by individual cities and special districts. A few of these, in the county's less affluent areas, have struggled during the past decade. The city of Santa Ana, for example, decided to close the McFadden Library, one of its main library's two branches. But as a result of public concern that children would be denied access to books, money was found in the budget, said Rob Richard, head librarian. The library remained open, but with reduced hours.

Those who spoke against closing the library argued that a well-educated and literate populace can eventually help reduce crime as much as expanded fire and police budgets.

"But it takes a number of years to show up," Richard said. "It's having faith that what you're doing now will have a future payoff. Like teaching."

In San Diego, library officials say their system has suffered from being considered a low priority in the local government budget.

Two years ago, Richard Waters, a nationally recognized library consultant, described San Diego's run-down central library building as "the worst one in the country . . . (among major cities). I would stand before God, flag and anyone else and say that if you look at the 10 major cities in the U.S., San Diego is physically the worst library in the United States."

Today, San Diego City Librarian William Sannwald assessed the state of the downtown library and came to the conclusion that only one thing has changed: It is now in even worse shape.

"The air conditioning and heating don't work," Sannwald said. "Anytime it rains the building leaks. The lighting is terrible. The whole place is falling apart."

Plastic sheeting is frequently used to cover book stacks because of leaky pipes, according to Sannwald. The library can't add any more computer terminals because "added electrical devices . . . even coffee pots, tend to blow fuses," he said. And about 40% of the downtown building's books are in storage because the library lacks space for public display, he said.

"You need elected officials who are strongly committed to libraries--we've never had that in San Diego," Sannwald complained. "We've had a tradition of poor funding."

San Diego's city library system is funded at a rate of $13 per capita, while some city libraries in California spend more than three times that amount. The Long Beach City Library spends about $26 per capita; Palm Springs spends $40 and Berkeley spends about $59 per capita. And San Diego County spends only about $9 per capita on its library system, compared with $17 in Orange County and about $16 in Los Angeles County.

Officials with San Diego's embattled library system are banking their hopes for improvement on a November bond issue that would raise more than $80 million to build a new 375,000-square-foot downtown building and rebuild about 10 aging branch libraries. Consultants predict that downtown library usage would jump by 50% if the new building is erected. But the bond issue must attract a two-thirds majority to win.

In contrast to San Diego, Los Angeles library officials praise city government and local residents for having been extremely supportive as the city library system has struggled to recuperate from a crippling series of blows.

In 1982, the Hollywood branch library was destroyed by fire. Then in 1986, a devastating arson blaze struck the city's historic Central Library, the busiest public library west of Chicago. A second arson fire hit the same building later that year. More than 400,000 books were destroyed, and another 700,000 suffered water damage. Many of the remaining books in the 2.3-million-volume collection suffered smoke damage.

Finally, in 1987, the Whittier earthquake rattled libraries from Hollywood to Boyle Heights, causing structural damage to five of the city's branch libraries, one of which remains closed today.

The succession of setbacks, particularly the fires, resulted in a massive outpouring of public and corporate support, which has set the library system on the road to recovery. And last October, the City Council approved a $180- million plan to renovate and expand the 63-year-old Central Library. Half of the funds are to come from the private developers of the adjacent 73-story First Interstate World Center, a skyscraper that won approval under the condition that the massive commitment be made to update the public library.

Now due to reopen on April 1, 1993, the Central Library, currently housed in temporary quarters, is to more than double in size.

"We're different from other parts of the country because there have been opportunities for people to express that they care about their library," said city library spokesman Robert G. Reagan. "And when they express themselves in large numbers, that's what (politicians) read . . . and then you have clout."

Times staff writers Paul Feldman, Adrianne Goodman, Gregory Johnson and Lynn Smith contributed to this story.

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