As a student at John Marshall High School in Los Feliz, Noel Alumit, who would go on to write the critically acclaimed novel Letters to Montgomery Clift, often headed straight for the public library when school got out. A member of the speech team, Alumit loved conducting research — but he had a much more important, and personal, need for the city library.
"I found Under the Rainbow: Growing Up Gay, by Arnie Kantrowitz" sitting on a shelf, Alumit says. He was 15, the child of Filipino immigrants, and secretly trying to come to terms with being gay. "I would go to the library and read a section of it, then come back anotherr day and start where I left off. There was no way I could bring it home." The book became an important part of his development. "It was," he says, "the first time I ever read a book like that."
And, Alumit remembers, "The thing about libraries was that it was a place to get information for free."
Today, students in Los Angeles are still venturing to public libraries — and in huge numbers. A recent survey by the Los Angeles Public Library system shows that 90,000 young people, or 15,000 students a day, visit one of the city's 73 libraries every week. With most LAUSD schools starting up this week, libraries soon will be packed.
Many public library systems — the five biggies are Boston, New York, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles — have faced an ugly two years of recession-spawned budget cuts and trimmed hours. Yet political leaders who control the purse strings for the biggest cities fought and saved their libraries from severe harm.
The city that has not done that is Los Angeles.
Here, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa executed an unprecedented, and punishing, raid on the libraries. Last spring he convinced the City Council to close the city's central and eight regional libraries on Sundays, then slashed $22 million from the 2010-11 budget and closed all 73 libraries on Mondays beginning July 19. Library officials say as many as 15,000 youths — plus an untold number of adults — have been turned away every closed day this summer.
Unlike the angry City Council in New York, which successfully fought a large library budget cut proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti and 4th District City Councilman Tom LaBonge, chairman of the council's Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee, quickly caved on Villaraigosa's proposed 2010 budget, of which the library cuts were a part.
Then, joining Garcetti and LaBonge, who claim that every bit of fat had been cut citywide, forcing them to shutter libraries, the council voted 10-3 to approve the mayor's budget. Voting yes were Garcetti, LaBonge, Ed Reyes, Paul Krekorian, Paul Koretz, Bernard Parks, Jan Perry, Herb Wesson, Bill Rosendahl and Greig Smith. Only Richard Alarcon, Janice Hahn and Jose Huizar voted no. (Dennis Zine and Tony Cardenas were absent.)
The cuts are radical, and unlike anything seen in a big U.S. city in this recession. Los Angeles now joins the dying city of Detroit as the only significant U.S. municipality to close down its entire library system twice weekly — a choice Detroit leaders made during the early-1980s recession, and from which its cultural core seems never to have recovered.
L.A. Weekly also has determined, after surveying 20 of America's largest cities, that only Los Angeles has chosen to close its central library for two days a week. A handful of cities — Dallas, San Diego, Nashville and Houston — are closing their central libraries one day each week to meet their budgets but stopped well short of closing twice weekly a facility that all metropolises consider to be a cultural jewel.
Pausing uncomfortably over the situation in L.A., Indianapolis–Marion County Public Library CEO Laura Bramble says her city's political leaders made certain all of its libraries remain open daily despite the deep fiscal crunch. As for L.A., she says, "We're going to have to decide our priorities as a society."
Sara Ring, a Los Feliz freelance writer who takes her 18-month-old son to the children's area of her local library because it's a safe, free place to play, is more direct: "L.A. is known as a city of airheads. Then we go and cut the library budget. It doesn't send a great message to the rest of the country."
Erika Caswell, a librarian at the Washington Irving Branch in Mid-City, calls the action by the council and mayor "a travesty," and refers to the situation over the summer as awful. She says, "Mondays were our busiest day. It's so crazy now, because the library hasn't been open for two days, and everyone comes rushing in on Tuesday."
One ominous result, already, in rougher neighborhoods of Los Angeles: "Kids don't have anywhere to go after school" on Mondays, Caswell says.