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"It's a fact they hit these departments harder than other departments," Kaye declares.
And when city tax revenues do finally pick up, many City Hall observers believe that money will not be initially directed to libraries but to Villaraigosa's political obsessions: the police and fire departments.
Complicating things for the libraries, and Angelenos who have been shut out of them, is the fact that city budget experts, including 8th District City Councilman Bernard Parks and City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, say Los Angeles probably won't see an economic turnaround for two or three more years, perhaps longer.
In other big U.S. cities, cooler heads prevailed this year. Far more modest cuts were made to the rest of the nation's significant municipal library systems. Deep cuts made no sense to the political leadership in Chicago, for example, where the libraries got an operating budget of $97 million — 93 percent from the city and 7 percent from the state.
In 2009, Chicago's budget was $104.8 million. This year's funding represents a drop of only $7.8 million, with three libraries, including its central library, open seven days a week and 71 of its 74 libraries open six days.
Stating the obvious, Chicago Public Library spokeswoman Ruth Lednicer says, "Mayor Richard Daley and our City Council really understand how important our libraries are for the community."
In New York, Mayor Bloomberg planned a major, $38 million budget cut for the New York Public Library, which operates on $254 million a year and oversees the world-famous main library on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, among other libraries.
But unlike in Los Angeles, the New York City Council fought Bloomberg spiritedly, restoring $28 million to the budget. As a result, all New York Public Library branches are open six days, with the main library open every day. "We had enormous support from the City Council," says NYPL President LeClerc.
In Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino restored more than $900,000 this year, when the state of Massachusetts cut library funding. "It showed libraries were important to him," says Boston Library spokeswoman Gina Perille. With 27 libraries, including a central library in Copley Square, Boston's system operates with $41.1 million. All branches are open six days a week, and the city's beloved central library remains open every day. Perille says Boston has no intention of closing libraries on additional days — especially not during the school year.
Cindy Mediavilla, an expert on the history of public libraries in California, notes that during the Great Depression, libraries were packed with out-of-work citizens. With L.A. mired in stubborn, double-digit unemployment, Mediavilla says, it's "rather shortsighted to not fund libraries during these dark times. People need access to computers to apply for jobs."
Sari Feldman, former president of the Public Library Association and executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library system in Ohio, says the assault by city fathers on the library budget in L.A. is a prime example of how some elected officials "don't understand the services we provide every day. Working-class people and people out of work are the ones hardest hit by the cuts to libraries."
Critics call it a slash-and-burn tactic with no eye for the future. "They don't look far ahead when they budget," says Hatfield, of the mayor and council, "and when they don't look far ahead, they can't get ahead of the budgetary problems" — some of which they created.
Adds Clean Sweep's Kaye: "It reflects the values of City Hall in not caring about the general public‚ who don't have an advocate at City Hall."
A few years ago, Erica Silverman, a writer of children's books, decided she wanted to be a city librarian. "I've spent my whole life in libraries," she says. She went to school, made the grades and eventually got a job at the Edendale Branch Library in Echo Park, where screenwriters, students, English-language learners, seniors and others gather to learn or hang out in a friendly environment off the streets.
"I think libraries can be taken for granted because they do what they do quietly," Silverman says. She wonders if Mayor Villaraigosa, City Council President Garcetti and the rest of the City Council truly understand how a public library's numerous services help a community to enrich itself, especially in poor neighborhoods. "Access to information is important to a democracy," she says.
But firsthand experience also has taught her that open, easily accessible libraries create not just better cities and better cultures but better humans.
"I have interactions all the time with people," Silverman says. "I see kids' eyes light up when they find a book. I know we're creating lifelong readers."