The last few years have witnessed the depressing sight of cash-starved public libraries dropping magazine subscriptions and cutting back on book purchases. Worse, they have reduced hours as well, sometimes whole days: All 27 Orange County-run libraries are closed on Fridays; 10 Los Angeles County-run libraries have shut down completely.
But anyone concerned that the public does not care for these buildings that provide intellectual nourishment, and sometimes even serve as day-care centers for latchkey kids, should take heart.
Three thousand people showed up this month for the opening of Newport Beach's new, $8.2-million central library, a well-buffed jewel that sparkled in the sun. Moreover, just days before the ribbon-cutting in Newport Beach, the Laguna Beach Library reopened to appreciative readers after a $500,000 face-lift that closed the county-run building for more than two months.
The Newport Beach opening was the culmination of seven years of planning, evidence that elected officials could display foresight and leadership. The bulk of the funds for the building came from bonds authorized by the taxpayers; businesses, community groups and individuals chipped in nearly $2 million. The Irvine Co. donated the site. It was a good example of the public-private partnership that Orange County has displayed a number of times, one worth imitating elsewhere.
Newport Beach is a wealthy community, but it has been affected as other cities in Southern California by the recession. The library budget has been cut by 7.5% this year; the branch libraries that were open 65 hours a week two years ago were open 54 hours a week last year and 45 hours a week this year. All the more reason to celebrate the new library, which replaced a smaller facility.
Friends of libraries are stepping forward elsewhere. Last week, Los Angeles County supervisors tentatively endorsed a worthwhile proposal to raise $30 million annually by taxing property owners in areas covered by the county library district. Library officials realize they will have to lobby the public for support, but they should be encouraged by similar campaigns waged successfully in Altadena and South Pasadena last month and in Pasadena last year.
Public libraries provide the space and tools that feed the imagination and encourage hope for better days. While they have fallen on hard times, the festivities and ballot box wins provide promise for the future.