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WESTSIDE COVER STORY : Unequal Stacks : Private funding helped Brentwood build a new library. Other facilities, particularly those that depend on dwindling L.A. County resources, have not been so fortunate.

July 17, 1994|SCOTT COLLINS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The people of Brentwood have written their own happy ending to a long saga over the local public library. As it happens, most of the writing came in the form of signatures on personal checks.

This afternoon, the ribbon will be cut on the $2.4-million, 10,400-square-foot Donald Bruce Kaufman Brentwood branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. After an 11-year struggle, residents of the affluent community have achieved victory in an era of financial hardship for many local governments.

Brentwood residents, or at least 1,950 of them, paid for almost all of their new library--and not just through taxes.

"We needed a library and we got a library," said Brentwood philanthropist Glorya Kaufman, who led the fund-raising campaign by writing the biggest checks--totaling well over $1 million. Her generosity inspired the Board of Library Commissioners to name the edifice after her late husband. "I think it's wonderful when people get together and do things like this."

Not all Westside communities are as fortunate as Brentwood.

In Marina del Rey, for instance, nothing will happen at the local library today--or tomorrow or the next day either. That's because the Marina library can afford to open only on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

At the Malibu library, patrons have become fed up as waiting lists for bestsellers have ballooned to several hundred names because the library has had no money for new books in over a year.

"People say, 'Oh, well, I guess I'll go out and buy it,' " said Malibu librarian Elaine Adler. "And then I say, 'Great. After you finish reading it, would you mind donating it to us?' "

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Such is the feast-or-famine world of community libraries, where a branch's quality, and perhaps its existence, can depend more on what system it belongs to and how much private support it garners than on how badly the community might need its services.

People who live within the Los Angeles city limits enjoy a library system that, one way or another, has been finding enough cash of late to improve or rebuild buildings, buy materials and fill long-vacant positions. People who live in nearby cities or unincorporated areas, meanwhile, are stuck with a county library system that can barely afford to stay open, let alone buy new books.

Statistics sketch part of the story: The city library system, which has 64 branches, has an operating budget of $36.7 million this year, an increase of almost 7% over last year. The county system, meanwhile, with 87 branches, has an operating budget of $47.6 million, down 26% from the $64.5 million of the previous fiscal year.

Library experts say the result is more than some inconvenienced book-lovers. Because children using local libraries to prepare homework assignments become exposed to literature there, library financial problems could affect the literacy of future generations.

"We're not able to go out into the schools like we used to and blow our own horn and get kids to read," Adler said.

The Brentwood branch at 11820 San Vicente Blvd. is just one of 25 Los Angeles city library branches undergoing major rebuilding or renovation projects, in most cases thanks to a $53.4-million bond issue passed by voters in 1989.

Workers have begun reinforcing and expanding the John C. Fremont branch at 6121 Melrose Ave. in Hollywood. Contracting bids are being taken on a new, 10,500-square-foot Robertson branch, between Beverly Hills and Palms, due to replace the old building at 1719 S. Robertson Blvd.

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In Venice, construction is about half-finished on a new branch at 501 S. Venice Blvd. The 64-year-old former building at 610 California Ave. was deemed too small and not up to seismic codes. (Old branches designated as historically important will be repaired and put to some other community use. Such aged buildings are often unsuitable for library use, city officials say, because of unusually strict seismic codes for libraries partly as a result of concerns that stacks might fall during a quake.)

Although city libraries are holding their own, if not thriving, the 87 Los Angeles County Library branches are languishing, victims of an $11-million library department budget shortfall that shows no signs of abating. County officials say they may have to close as many as half of the branches in the system unless they can raise enough money by next month.

Klein and others traced the county libraries' immediate problems to 1993, when Gov. Pete Wilson and the Legislature shifted $2.2 billion of property tax revenue to schools to balance the state budget. Since the Los Angeles County system relies heavily on property taxes, it lost $29.4 million in operating revenue overnight.

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As a result, county libraries have recently laid off 370 full- and part-time workers, cut service hours by 65% and halted all purchases of new books, magazines and tapes. On the Westside, branches in Culver City, Malibu, Marina del Rey and West Hollywood are still reeling from the changes--and hoping the future doesn't bring worse news.

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