FOR BOOK LOVERS IN MERCED COUNTY, CALIFORNIA, THE WINTER holidays didn't get off to a merry start last year. Two days before Thanksgiving, the Merced County Board of Supervisors voted to shut down all 19 libraries in the county system by New Year's Day. The move came after the county lost $11.9 million in state aid as a result of California's struggle to balance its budget.
Across the country, tight budgets are leading to dramatic cuts in funding for public libraries. So many libraries have closed their doors in recent years that the American Library Association says it's no longer able to keep track of them all. The trend began in 1990, when officials in Worcester, Massachusetts, a city of 170,000, closed all six library branches. Cutbacks and closures spread quickly as other towns and cities succumbed to a weakened economy.
The Old Mill Green Public Library in Bridgeport, Connecticut, announced it would be open only on Thursdays. Bookmobiles in Fairfax, Virginia, and Syracuse, New York, were eliminated. And in Los Angeles, the county library system was threatened with the closure of about 50 of its 87 branches. New York librarians began an "Index of Misery" to record closures in the state.
Public libraries that can afford to remain open are finding their collections becoming dated, as money for new books and magazine subscriptions disappears. The materials budget for the Nevada State Library & Archives went from $153,000 in 1992 to zero in 1993. Other states have also eliminated their book budgets and have seen magazine-subscription budgets slashed by more than 50 percent. In Phoenix, library staff members were recently asked to take furloughs in order to maintain the book budget.
These funding cuts have accelerated a process that has been going on for much of this century: Libraries are losing their focus. Scrambling to justify their existence, they are taking on roles that have little or nothing to do with their central mission. Bernard Vavrek of Clarion University's Center for the Study of Rural Librarianship has said that public libraries should consider offering services such as shelter for the homeless and day care for children and the elderly. Public libraries in Seattle, Philadelphia, and Greensboro, North Carolina, already offer latchkey programs. And 39 percent of the respondents in a national telephone survey recently conducted by the library school at the University of Illinois, Urbana, said public libraries should offer safe places for children to stay after school.
But social services do not mix very well with a public library's other purposes. When the Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation Department eliminated local after-school programs in 1992, 40 or so middle- and high-school students adopted the Culver City Library as their after-school hangout. While some kids try to study, says head librarian Josie Zoretich, most are too rambunctious to sit still and keep quiet. "It's very difficult," says Zoretich. "We monitor them, we walk around. And that's the only thing we've found that works. But it's not the staff's job either. We're not recreation leaders, and we have still a whole public to serve." Memos at the circulation desk remind parents that "the library is not an alternative child care facility."
Amid the gloom, however, citizens in a few scattered towns are demonstrating another way to make libraries relevant. They have managed to create and sustain libraries without government money, reconnecting these institutions with the people they are supposed to serve. These private alternatives address both the fiscal and identity crises public libraries now face.
PALM SPRINGS, CALIFORNIA, HAS A REPutation as a desert oasis for the very rich, but the vacant storefronts along the main street tell another story. Palm Springs hasn't escaped the hard times facing the Golden State, nor have its public libraries. When it came time to close the Welwood Murray Memorial Library, however, the people of Palm Springs took charge. The result was one of this country's first privatized libraries.
The city planned to sell the site of the library to a developer, but the land had been donated to the city in 1938 by the Murray family on the condition that it be used for a library. Public-library officials and the Save the WMML Committee, allied with City Council member and "reinventing government" advocate Deyna Hodges, successfully challenged the sale in court.
By the end of June 1992, city officials had removed every last book from the library and closed its doors as a public institution. The next day, the library began its new life as a private volunteer enterprise, run by WMML, a newly incorporated nonprofit foundation, and overseen by a board of seven trustees. "They left us with nothing," says trustee Jeanette Hardenburg, sitting near the glass cases of Indian jewelry and pottery now at the library's entrance. "And the building itself hadn't been properly maintained for years. Volunteers did everything you see here--refinished the ceiling, donated display cases."
And the citizens of Palm Springs gave books by the thousands; the library now has more than...