Fewer new materials mean long waits for D.C. library customers

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Local,DC,Courtney Zott

Facing a dramatic slash to its book budget, the D.C. Public Library system is anticipating customer waits of up to six weeks for its popular materials if the D.C. Council does not restore funding next year.

At an oversight hearing Wednesday conducted by Councilman Tommy Wells, about 50 library staff and supporters voiced concern about the library's looming inability to meet residents' demands for books. The money the library uses to purchase new books and e-resources for its 24 branches was cut by 40 percent from 2011.

"I understand the budget cuts require tough choices," said Susan B. Haight, the president of West End Library Friends, "and there are many challenges to maintaining a vibrant entity. If you look at the numbers, though, DCPL is doing more with much less."

MLK branch
The D.C. Public Library says that, after 40 years, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library isn't quite living up to its potential in the Mies van der Rohe-designed building in downtown D.C. The library system is not using all the space in the 400,000-square-foot building, which D.C. Councilman Tommy Wells called "the most energy-inefficient building in the city." A report by the Urban Land Institute last month suggested three options for the library. In the best case, funds will be restored to allow it to remain the sole user, but the ULI also suggested renting out half of the structure or relocating to a smaller building downtown.

Funds for new materials have plummeted from a high of $6 million in 2006 to the current $1.8 million allotment.

To give the figures perspective, Wells said comparable public library systems in Seattle and Columbus, Ohio, fund their book budgets at approximately $6 million and $8 million, respectively.

"The budget has got to go up, not down," Wells said.

Online materials -- databases, and downloadable books, music and movies -- are especially popular. Many of the library's branches have been forced to reduce their hours because of overall budget cuts, but e-resources can be accessed 24 hours a day.

Without enough funds, however, the library's new most popular "branch" could find itself unable to renew memberships to journals and other databases.

The library attempted to make up for the lack of new materials with a 60-day fine forgiveness campaign in December. The initiative brought back 15,000 books and more than 1,000 customers who hadn't been to the library in three or more years.

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