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Tuesday, April 27, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Susan Byrnes / Times editorial columnist
Libraries for all, except when they're closed


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If you want a read on Seattle's health, head out to the library, as I did one Thursday evening before dinner. Drive up to the newly refurbished Carnegie library in West Seattle, down to the slick new Delridge branch, across the West Seattle bridge to the storefront branch in Beacon Hill, down through the International District to the temporary central library, up the freeway to Lake City.

It doesn't matter where you go. If it's after six o'clock, you won't find a Seattle Public Library open anywhere in this city.

I hate to be a downer less than a month before the grand opening of the city's unique and stunning new downtown library, but something is wrong with this picture.

Once upon a time, it was possible to check out a book until nine o'clock at night on a Thursday in just about any of the city's nearly two dozen branches. Once upon a time, many of the city's libraries stayed open 11 hours on several weekdays. Four days a week, the downtown library was open 12 hours a day. Today, that seems like a fairly tale.

When Seattle voters agreed overwhelmingly in 1998 to foot the $196.4 million bill for new and improved libraries all around town, I'm pretty sure they didn't expect they'd have fewer hours a week to enjoy the fruits of their investment.

But that's exactly what has happened. At first hours went up. But since 2000, they've gone back down. As the bang of hammers and buzz of saws signaled newer, better library facilities all over town, the chip, chip, chip in the background was the sound of library hours being slowly chiseled away.

Take the new downtown library. When voters approved it, the library was open 70 hours a week. Those weren't perfect hours — Sunday was still too short — but they were passable. Now, the downtown library is open 58 hours a week.

Obviously, these are tough economic times. Between 2000 and 2003, the library's operating budget suffered $3.5 million in ongoing budget cuts. Things were so bad the library had to shut its doors for two weeks a year to save money. The budget for books and materials was reduced and fines went up.

This year, as other city programs and services were slashed, city officials shielded libraries from additional cuts. The library's operating budget will actually increase in 2004 to pay for staffing and operations of the new facilities.

But library cuts shouldn't be on the table every year. Libraries are a core city service. And as King County Library System Director Bill Ptacek puts it: "The primary thing a library does is be open."

Before considering any further library reductions, the city should prove it has cinched its belt as tight as it can go. That doesn't mean enacting a hiring freeze as the city did in August, then authorizing the hiring of 1,052 positions.

King County libraries are funded differently from Seattle's. Their operating costs come primarily from property tax revenues, while Seattle's come from the city's general fund. Still, their hours would make Seattle's bibliophiles envious.

All of the county system's regional libraries — Bothell, Bellevue, Redmond, Kent, Federal Way — are open longer hours than Seattle's downtown architectural marvel will be. That includes Sunday nights until nine o'clock.

Don't even try to find a library open in Seattle on Sunday after five.

Sunday evenings are the busiest time at King County libraries. A Sunday evening library visit is a bookend for the weekend, a chance to catch up on last-minute homework assignments, check out a new novel, scan the help-wanted ads or refine a résumé.

People used to talk about how the Internet was going to make libraries obsolete. No one is saying that anymore. The Internet has actually helped spark a library revival in many cities and towns across the country.

The U.S. Department of Education found visits to the nation's public libraries increased more than 17 percent between 1996 and 2001. More than ever, we need our libraries and librarians to help make sense of the information saturation.

Seattle is a city of readers who cherish their libraries. Last year, Seattle library users checked out more than 4 million books. Yet there was surprisingly little public outcry as library hours were whittled away. Library users should put up a bigger fight next time — draw a line on further cutbacks and push city officials for restoration of hours.

Before "Libraries for All" was on the ballot in 1998, then-mayor Paul Schell and City Librarian Deborah Jacobs co-wrote a letter to the City Council with a warning: "Building new libraries would be a hollow gesture without funds to assure that they are open when citizens need to use them."

Indeed.

Susan Byrnes' column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is sbyrnes@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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