Saturday, May 2, 2009

Public Libraries in Hard Times

So, about a month ago I read in the Renton free paper that the Renton Public Library is moving towards a merger with the King County Library System. The City Council there has already recommended it, because of the current budget crunch, and it'll soon be going for a city-wide vote if it hasn't already. A pity, I thought. When I first arrived out here in Sept. 1997 I was surprised to find that Renton had its own library, distinct from and independent of the county-wide library system to which, for example, the Kent Library belongs (Renton even has one small branch library, up in the NE expansion of the city). It's also a v. striking building, suspended as it is over the Cedar River -- in effect resting atop its own bridge. I'll be sorry to see this go through, if it does, since the Renton Library, being isolated from the main system, has its own distinct collection the more homogeneous branches lack (for example, lots of old mysteries from the fifties and sixties on the shelves, like Rex Stout and Perry Mason). But it'd certainly be better than closing.

Which is apparently to be the fate of another small Washington town's library. According to a sidebar in last week's issue of REAL CHANGE (a local small press paper sold by the homeless as a way of working for a living rather than panhandling, and thus a Good Thing), the Castle Rock Municipal Library has lost all its operating budget (a ":100 percent reduction"), and a levy to secure new funding failed by four votes. Result: they've been struggling along on donations, and when those run out they'll shut their doors.

By contrast, the Seattle Public Library (which again you'd think would be part of the King County System, but again it isn't), which is mainly famous for being housed in one of the ugliest buildings in the world and for its ostentatious displays of wasted space, is also in trouble: according to the cover story of the same issue of REAL CHANGE, the mayor is shutting down all branches for a week sometime this summer, during which all the people who work there will be placed on an unpaid furlough (essentially like being laid off for a week). Ouch. It would be nice to report that the mayor decided to go without pay himself for a week, but no such luck -- instead he's forgoing a raise he would otherwise have gotten and refunding the city the amount of his most recent raise. He's still going ahead with plans to spend a quarter-billion or so on a new jail since, in his words, "During a recession, crime tends to go up".

All this makes me appreciate the Magnolia Public Library I had access to growing up all the more. While it was rough growing up in a town without a bookstore*, we did have a good library, which I haunted assiduously. And while Magnolia (between 11,000 and 12,000 people) is a good deal larger than Castle Rock (pop.2150), the library there still seems to be doing well -- during my visit last month we saw convicts in stripy suits carrying boxes of books out and, a few days later, drove by the site of the new library (they've moved out of the old post office building downtown a few blocks from the Courthouse square, where they've been ever since they moved out of the jail, and into a large church building on the northern edge of town, right next to the college -- when we went by they'd just taken the steeple off). A kindly librarian, rather frazzled from too much to do organizing the more, even came out and told us the opening date -- I'll definitely have to stop in on my next visit down south. After all, in lieu of any bookstore, it was the library back in 1974 which ordered copies of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, THE TWO TOWERS, THE RETURN OF THE KING, THE HOBBIT, and (in 1975) WATERSHIP DOWN for me, all of which by now rather worn copies I still have, and re-read, today.

--John R.

*(Robinson's Bookstore was actually a stationary shop that also sold a few Bibles, and the college bookstore, when I eventually discovered it, mainly sold knick-knacks; customers couldn't even walk through and view the area where they kept the textbooks for sale)

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