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Bookkeeping Woes : Budget Cuts May Force Restored Central Library to Scale Back

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If the Los Angeles Central Library opens its eight-foot bronze doors on schedule in a year or so, the first users will encounter an entirely different library than the one ravaged by fire in 1986.

Not only will the structure be twice as large, but the rebuilding and restocking have allowed an updating of collections and a modernization of services that otherwise would have occurred gradually over decades, if ever.

Upstairs at the monolith at 5th and Flower streets, users will find an enormous children’s wing--three times the size it was--a reflection of the baby boom and of public libraries’ growing awareness that ensuring future borrowers requires hooking children on books.

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Down one corridor they will encounter a larger foreign languages section, with more current titles and room to grow, a recognition of the multilingual society that defines Los Angeles.

Library cards will carry electronic bar codes, rows of card catalogues will have been replaced by 120 computer terminals, the building will be climate-controlled, and the elevators will work.

But library users also could face frustrating lines at the reference and checkout desks and early closing times. If threatened state budget cuts become reality, the restored library could become one of the most visible examples of the impact of the state’s deficit on public services that everyone takes for granted.

“We could physically do it--we could open the doors,” said Betty Gay, the Central Library’s director. “But that would be about it.”

It is the same potential catastrophe being faced by all public libraries in California this year, as state government grasps at tax funds set aside for local services. The Los Angeles County library system is predicting that it would have to close up to 70 of its 92 libraries.

“It could end the county public library concept as we have known it,” said county Librarian Sandra F. Reuben.

Even faced with such doomsday predictions, those closely involved with the Central Library reconstruction remain optimistic that money to operate the new facility will be found somewhere, perhaps through charges for services such as research for downtown businesses.

But they also are concerned that opening such a grandiose building in the midst of a recession could trigger criticism from less well-endowed quarters.

“We realize that there are going to be people who will say: ‘You’re reducing hours at branches and all this other stuff, why so much emphasis on the Central Library?’ ” said Robert Reagan, city library system spokesman. “The answer is it will be the major library facility in the western United States, it’s going to be built once in 100 years, you have to do it right.”

Reagan points out that the money being used for construction was earmarked for that purpose by a variety of private and public sources, and includes federal historic preservation funds. The construction funds cannot be used for operating the branch libraries.

Already, the partially constructed library--designed by architects Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer & Associates and built by Tutor-Saliba--has become a national example of historic restoration, Reagan said. It has attracted curious representatives of public libraries from Denver, San Francisco and Vancouver.

The walls are being meticulously restored using their original materials--ceramic tile, covered by concrete, covered by canvas--although buried underneath those materials is a metal mesh, a concession to modern earthquake standards.

Throughout the original library, murals are being cleaned and restored and re-created, as is the case with decorated columns in the central rotunda that were painted yellow in the 1960s.

Malfunctioning 1950s-era elevators are being replaced with replicas of the 1926 originals, but with 1990s mechanisms that director Gay says are “guaranteed to work.”

In some cases, the old has become art.

Mahogany card catalogues built into a wall of the rotunda will be refinished but not refilled with cards. Instead, there are tentative plans to attach commemorative donor plates to their faces.

The discarded cards, rendered obsolete by the computerized cataloguing system, will adorn the inside of an elevator being designed by artist David Bunn. Last week, Bunn said he was sorting through the 6.6 million cards, struggling to decide which titles to use.

On the thoroughly modern end, there will be the Translogic Electric Track Vehicle System, a fancy name for a mini-railroad that will carry books from the stacks to reference desks. In the new library, only about half of the 2.2-million book collection will be housed in closed stacks, compared to 85% at the former library.

The financial problems looming arise neither from the extensive artwork--funded by private contributions--nor the ambitious building plans. Although construction is expected to cost several million more than the $211.4 million estimate, that money appears to be covered by a library construction account swollen by interest and developer fees.

Instead, the glitch is in the operating costs, particularly the cost of paying the larger staff needed to keep the bigger, more complex library running smoothly.

The state’s budget deficit has led to staff cutbacks at all city libraries, including the temporary Central Library, which lost 25 of its 211 employees during the past year, Reagan said.

Bare-minimum estimates call for the new Central Library to have 50 more employees than now work at the temporary library, the library spokesman said, at a cost of about $1.7 million.

In addition, the success of the outreach programs that the additional employees would help run--such as a small branch library within the library for hurried browsers and scheduling for two large meeting rooms and an auditorium--depend on being open nights and weekends.

Yet, hours at the temporary Central Library were cut from 55 to 48 a week this summer, Gay said, leaving it open only two nights past 5:30. It is closed on Sundays.

City Administrative Officer Keith Comrie said he hopes that the city will be able to maintain the proposed annual city libraries’ budget of about $50 million. But he said any augmentation would be very unlikely this year.

“Look at the basic necessities they are pushed up against: paramedics, police and fire,” he said.


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