Libraries Get Bonus, but the Plot Thickens : Surprise Surplus Funds Don't Ensure a Happy Ending

There is good news and bad news for people who rely on Los Angeles County library services in our region. The good news is that part of the county's unexpected budget surplus will be earmarked for libraries and bookmobiles that otherwise would have had to close their doors and shut down their engines. The bad news is that this particular reprieve only runs through June 30 of next year. This means that the libraries are still in need of considerable help on a number of fronts.

There is much that can be done.

Spared from any immediate blow from the budgetary ax, however, are the county's San Fernando City, Calabasas and Westlake Village libraries in the San Fernando Valley. In the Antelope Valley, the Little Rock, Lake Los Angeles and Quartz Hill libraries have been saved. In the Santa Clarita Valley, the same list includes the county's Newhall and Canyon Country facilities. Because of the county's budget surplus funds, all will be allowed to maintain their already limited hours of operation of two days a week. Bookmobile and mobile library services in Calabasas, Agua Dulce, Acton and the Antelope Valley will also continue.

Even that bit of good news is marred, however, by the realities facing the county library system today. Some $30 million was slashed from its budget this past summer, and the libraries were once open for 64 hours a week, not just 28 hours. In the past, according to county librarian Sandra Reuben, it was typical for the library system to purchase 150 to 200 copies of the most popular best sellers, such as "The Bridges of Madison County." Now, there are only a dozen or so copies of such books, and the waiting list for that one, in particular, stands at 1,500.

But the fiscal problems go beyond delays in getting a copy of your favorite hardcover before its first paperback printing. For poor children, the libraries can be the only source of books--and quiet study areas--outside of their schools. Elderly people on fixed incomes find the libraries far more affordable than the cheapest discount bookstore chains. Reuben also points out that the county libraries run 14 tutoring and literacy centers.

State legislation that was of key importance to L.A. County could have preserved these services. One bill would have helped fund libraries through new assessment districts. An excellent example of such potential generosity was Pasadena's special library tax, approved by 79.7% of the voters there last summer. But Gov. Pete Wilson killed the assessment district idea in a shortsighted veto last month. The governor needs to pocket his veto pen and realize that signing such a bill into law isn't creating a new tax, it's giving voters a chance to decide on whether they want one for specific purposes.

Other options for helping the libraries are still available, however.

One that residents of the three Valleys and their environs should consider is a tax-deductible donation to the county library system's "Count Me In" campaign. Every few dollars here can mean another book that the libraries might not have been able to afford. Magazine subscriptions are also important. With a check for a few dollars, you can order them in the name of your favorite library branch, and in the process give hundreds of people access to more information. Those interested in making donations of money or subscriptions can call (310) 940-6992.

Those of you who regularly stroll the aisles of various bookstore chains, carrying home armloads of books--books that you will read once and then set aside--can help, too. Why not donate them to the local library, which might even immortalize you with a sticker noting that you gave them the book? "Let the local library be your attic," says County Librarian Reuben.

That sounds like a reasonable slogan to us.

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