By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
On a recent Monday afternoon, Haley Hill, a freelance graphic artist, and Eric Carlson, an English-language tutor, stand outside the Edendale Branch Library on Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park, across from the Brite Spot diner. The Silver Lake residents are in their 20s and visit the library often. "I get all of my movies from the library," says Carlson, who lives on a tight budget. He uses the free Internet access to prepare his students' lessons since he doesn't own a computer.
When they walked to the Edendale branch, neither realized that Los Angeles' public libraries — which already started closing on Sundays last April — had shut down on Mondays for the foreseeable future. They were angry and perplexed when they came upon the locked doors.
"It's really shitty because it's something that affects so many people in the area," says Hill, who often sees lots of children in the library. "They always cut the most important things."
It's not only Angelenos who are using libraries more than ever. Library systems across the nation are seeing spikes in use. "Americans are visiting libraries in gigantic numbers," says New York Public Library President Paul LeClerc, who oversees one of the most renowned systems in the world. "The more libraries that are open, the more people will use them."
LeClerc points to a study published in March by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, "Opportunity for All," which found 169 million visits by Americans to a public library in 2009 — 77 million to get free access to the Internet. People ages 11 to 18 are the among most active Internet users at libraries, about 11.8 million of them.
Many are teenagers doing homework, the study finds. And 61 percent of young people between 14 and 24 who live below the federal poverty line are using library computers and the Internet for educational purposes. "They don't have the money to pay for that access," LeClerc says.
In February, Villaraigosa held a press conference at the Silver Lake Branch Library, telling journalists the grim news that funding for city libraries was on the chopping block. Then-KABC news reporter Michael Linder taped the mayor as saying: "We no longer have the revenues to be able to support the level of services that we provide."
He then declared, "No big city in the country has a library system compared to ours."
That's true now but not in the boastful, positive way he asserted.
Stone says members of the Library Commission — most of them political appointees of Villaraigosa's — were far too quick to go along with his cuts. "We couldn't get anybody to push back," Stone says of the five-member commission. "We tried to tell them what was happening, but they didn't listen."
In an interview with the Weekly, Library Commission President Tyree Wieder, a former president of Los Angeles Valley College, insists: "It was necessary due to [the city's] financial situation. They looked at it very, very hard.
"The City Council members and the mayor were in a very tough situation," and she even insists that Villaraigosa and the City Council in no way targeted the Los Angeles Public Library system.
"They picked on the smallest kid on the block," scoffs Neighborhood Council Valley Village member Hatfield, upon hearing Wieder's strained denial. "They're more afraid of neighborhood councils than the library union."
Jay Handal, chairman of the West Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, says, "They're attacking the low-hanging fruit, as opposed to having a plan. They knew the [librarians] didn't have the people to put the screws to the mayor and the City Council."
During his fiscal raid on the libraries, Villaraigosa proposed a $75.9 million general fund subsidy for the libraries, which the City Council approved. That was the exact amount Villaraigosa was legally required to submit due to a City Charter mandate — not a penny more. That amount, combined with the $6.8 million the libraries generate through fees and fines, created an $82.7 million operating budget.
The City Council then agreed with Villaraigosa's proposal to force the library system to reimburse the city's general fund for its overhead and utilities costs of $22 million, taking it out of the $82.7 million operating budget.
No other city agency except the Department of Recreation and Parks has to cough up that kind of overhead reimbursement.
The highly controversial practice — in essence, an internal tax on one department singled out for punishment, even as several other departments' staffers were being given substantial raises — began in 2008-09. This year, the same Villaraigosa scheme left the libraries an operating budget of $60.7 million, a devastating cut that forced city libraries to survive on $1.7 million less they got back in 2002-03 — when fewer libraries existed and thus fewer librarians were needed.
Sherice Norris, the teacher and mother in Watts, had trusted the mayor and City Council to do the right thing during the budget debates, but upon learning that only the city libraries and Recreation and Parks are being forced to pay the general fund back for their utilities and overhead costs, she grows angry. "I didn't know [city elected leaders] were going to stoop that low," she says.