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Originally published Monday, October 26, 2009 at 12:03 AM

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Lit Life

Lit life | Library cuts go too deep

Seattle Public Library is proposing a 23 percent cut in library hours in response to Mayor Greg Nickels' directive to city departments to cut budgets in response to a $72 million revenue shortfall. Lit Life correspondent Mary Ann Gwinn argues the cuts are too deep.

Seattle Times book editor

Seattle City Council budget hearing:

5:30 p.m. today, at City Council Chambers 600 Fourth Ave., Seattle. For more information, call the council receptionist at 206-684-8888 or go to www.seattle.gov/council/calendar

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Life is full of ironies, but here's a whopper: Seattle, one of America's most literate cities, home to the Gates Foundation global libraries initiative, may have to shut most of its libraries two days a week.

That's the prospect the Seattle City Council contemplates this fall as it hammers out a final version of the city budget.

Since 2000, library usage in the city has soared; from 4.5 million in-person and virtual visitors to 13.2 million in 2008, according to the library.

Nevertheless, responding to Mayor Greg Nickels' directive to city departments to cut budgets in response to a $72 million revenue shortfall, the library is proposing a 23 percent reduction in library hours.

Under the proposal, 21 out of 27 branches in the city would be closed Fridays (when all branches are now open) and Sundays (right now, 16 out of 27 branches are open).

On Wednesdays and Thursdays, these 21 branches would open an hour later (11 a.m.) and close 2 hours earlier — 6 p.m. instead of 8 p.m. On Saturdays, they would open an hour later, at 11 a.m., closing at 6 p.m. (the way they do now).

To attempt to compensate, the system will keep six branches — Central Library, Ballard, Douglass Truth, Lake City, Rainier Beach and Southwest — open on Fridays and Sundays, and slightly increase their hours on other days.

But the impact is undeniable: less study and computer time for teenagers using the library on weekday evenings. Less help for adults job hunting, for users of the library's free Wi-Fi Internet access and for devotees of morning programs like "Toddler Time." More than 400 computers, and a million books and materials, unavailable to the public two days a week.

And yes, there will be another weeklong closure (remember when the library was closed for a week in late August and early September?) and assorted other cuts.

Simply put, the library is in crisis. Its square footage has almost doubled since the Libraries for All capital campaign added four new branches, expanded and renovated 22 existing branches and built the new Central Library.

Now the city has beautiful new branch libraries, such as the High Point and Delridge branches. But it doesn't have the bucks to keep them open — this in a serious recession, when people need libraries more than ever.

The few critics of the Libraries for All campaign that could be found when it passed in 1998 (who doesn't love libraries?) warned that this might happen. But here we are, so I asked library spokeswoman Andra Addison the obvious question: why not cut something besides branch hours?

"The Library has limited choices when faced with making major budget reductions," Addison wrote. "The majority of the budget (about 77 percent) pays for direct public service (open hours — the librarians and Library staff that run the buildings and serve patrons). Approximately 11 percent funds the collection... and the remaining 12 percent pays for technology, utilities and maintenance costs (fixed costs).

"So when the library is faced with major budget reductions, like a 5 percent cut, it really has only two choices — cut hours, or books and materials," Addison said. The book and materials budget has taken severe cuts over the years, and the library, having gotten some money this year to rebuild it ($2 million), is disinclined to start slashing it once again.

Meanwhile, the county's library system, funded directly from a dedicated portion of the property tax, foresees a flat budget for next year of $96 million — no increases, but no cuts.

Unlike the county library, which has direct control of the money it gets, the city library must tap into the same revenue as every other city department — and when revenues are down, the competition for that money gets fierce.

Times are hard. Still, does the city want to cut by one-fifth the services of a city department that has almost tripled the number of visits it's handled in the last eight years?

There's a City Council hearing on the budget at 5:30 p.m. today, its last before it starts deliberating the budget in earnest.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com. Mary Ann Gwinn appears on Classical KING-FM's Arts Channel at www.king.org/pages/4216533.php

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