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Library Cuts Could Hit Home at Capitol

May 19, 2003|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

A dozen years ago, in the midst of another budget crisis for California, the state Legislature created a research bureau to provide lawmakers and the governor with independent analysis.

Today, with the state facing an even more difficult budget dilemma, the California Research Bureau has again come to the attention of the Legislature -- but not as the bureau's analysts and researchers would like.

The bureau is just one of several parts of the California State Library targeted by the Davis administration for spending cuts to help close a shortfall that was projected at $38.2 billion in the governor's May budget revision last week.

And although the State Library is not the only target of cuts -- its budget would be trimmed about 20%, from $21 million to about $17 million -- it is a place strikingly intimate to those in the Legislature and the administration who are doing the cutting.

The State Library provides most of the basic research and analyses to legislative and gubernatorial staff through the bureau on the fifth floor of the Capitol.

Gov. Gray Davis' proposed budgets have offered varying degrees of bad news, drawing quiet but unmistakable protests from researchers and analysts who work closely with the legislators who will make the cuts. A January budget proposal would have cut operations by 30% and cost the Legislature at least three of its own librarians and six of the analysts, including the bureau's experts on state taxes, the California economy and Indian affairs.

The May revise offered better news, freeing up an additional $2 million in general fund money for State Library operations. Library officials now say they might be able to hold job reductions to half of what had been anticipated.

Era of Term Limits

Whatever their scope, the librarians argue that with so many decisions to make, lawmakers can hardly afford to cut the people and resources that help officials and citizens evaluate their government.

The drain is particularly notable in an era of term limits, when legislators must rely on the state government's analytic machinery as they make budget choices.

"Clearly, this is a time when we do need more information rather than less," said Michael Bartolic, a reference librarian for the State Library. "The library is part and parcel of that collective intelligence, which is necessary to be preserved."

Administration officials and legislators say that although they would prefer not to cut from the library, some reductions are inevitable in any state program, given the size of the projected shortfall.

"I happen to be a big library proponent, and this certainly affects people very close to us," said state Sen. Jack Scott (D-Altadena). "But the state is facing an almost impossible task, and the library will have to sustain some cuts."

Anita Gore, a Department of Finance spokeswoman, pointed to the difficulty of the governor's choices: "Everything is on the table."

The library, whose main building is across 10th Street from the Capitol, is California's institutional memory. Besides providing research for state officials, it is the keeper of significant documents from the state's history. And it is the state's only full federal depository -- making it the sole place in California where the public can access all federal government publications.

The library has previously grappled with cuts by shifting some expenses from state general funds to federal programs. Among these shifted costs have been purchases for the library's well-regarded collection of material in rare languages, such as Persian. To make up for some of the cuts in the May revise, the governor has proposed that the library be allowed to collect up to $1 million in user fees. But the Legislature has been cool to the idea, arguing that patrons are unlikely to pay for library use.

The State Library might have to reduce its hours from the current five days a week, library officials say. Tentative plans call for cutting the materials budget in half, to $750,000. The 4-year-old Library of California initiative -- an attempt to make available electronically the resources of all California libraries -- is likely to lose its state funding.

Purchases likely will be curtailed in a category central to the library's mission: Californiana. The State Library has long tried to maintain a comprehensive collection of materials published about the state, but it is impossible to keep up purchases during the budget crisis, library officials say.

Historians and researchers say that there will probably be a gap in California's historical record for the duration of the budgetary difficulties. Because many titles go out of print quickly, filling in that gap later will be impossible, librarians say.

"It's something that later generations of Californians will come to rue," said Peter Blodgett, curator of Western American manuscripts at the Huntington Library in San Marino.

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