Diana Hernandez, 10, left, Francky Mirafuentes, 10, and David Canales,… (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)
If the story of the Los Angeles Public Library system were a book on a library shelf, it would have a tattered cover.
Ravaged by budget cuts and layoffs, the system dropped to a five-day-a-week schedule last year, with doors closed on Sundays and Mondays at all of the city's 73 libraries. Ongoing budget woes mean the plot could worsen in coming years, perhaps leading to some library closures.
A measure on the March 8 ballot gives voters a chance to increase the amount of money dedicated to the library each year.
Supporters, who include Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck and all 15 members of the City Council, say it would help restore service and shield the library from future cuts.
But opponents, including the police union and the League of Women Voters, say it would force cuts to other city departments, including fire, street services, and parks and recreation.
More money for libraries means less for everybody else, said Kristi Sandoval, a director of the 9,900-member Police Protective League.
"It creates more problems than it actually solves," she said. "You're basically borrowing from Peter to pay Paul."
The union is worried that police might get a smaller slice of the pie but does not plan to spend money to try to defeat Measure L because, Sandoval said, it will probably pass.
Los Angeles voters have been kind to libraries in the past. They approved bond measures in 1989 and 1998 that brought in $231 million for library construction and renovation projects.
"I think there will be a lot of yeses," Sandoval said. "But we want to make sure people have a clear understanding of what that vote means."
Library advocates scoff at critics who suggest libraries are less than essential.
The police "clean up after crime, but we prevent it," said Roy Stone, the local president of the Librarians' Guild.
Libraries are community centers where job seekers can search for employment, the homeless can escape the elements and kids can stay out of trouble, he said. Measure L, he said, asks voters a question: "What kind of city do we want to have?"
Growing up in foster care in the San Fernando Valley, Angel Bell spent every afternoon at the library. It was a safe haven, she said, and helped her avoid the problems of some of the other foster kids.
"I read constantly," she said. "They partied a lot."
Books, Bell said, enabled her to think beyond what her world was "to what it could be."
Now 27 and working as a security guard, Bell reads all night during her graveyard shift — science fiction, romance and, surprisingly for a city girl, books on farming. She visits the Pico Union Branch Library once a week.
She was there on a recent rainy afternoon with her daughter, Olivia Bell-Garcia, 7, who was reading about sharks.
"The library is where everyone comes," Bell said.
Nearby, middle school students huddled over homework, whispering with tutors, and toddlers curled up on pillows with picture books, mouthing words. One man browsed the Spanish-language movie section while another looked through Korean-language magazines.
Juan Carlos Hernandez, 28, was sitting at a computer, his face an inch from the screen. He was gazing at a photograph of a cornfield in San Francisco Pichataro, the small Mexican town where he grew up.
"I miss it," he said.
Hernandez, a roofer, came here six years ago and lives with his family in an apartment nearby. On days he can't find work, he comes to the library to read books or online news from back home. He said: "I can't pay for the Internet."
On this day, all of the library's 34 computers were in use. Branch manager Kathy Ellison said that is typical and that people often use them to apply for jobs or unemployment benefits.
Libraries across America have reported an increase in users since the onset of the recession.
The number of visits to Los Angeles libraries hit a peak of 17 million in the 2008-09 fiscal year, said Los Angeles Public Library spokesman Peter Persic. In 2009-10, visits dipped to 16 million, he said, probably because of the Sunday and Monday closures.
Just a few years ago, the outlook for the system was quite bright.
In 2007, the city finished a 15-year building program that expanded the number of libraries from 63 to 72 and more than doubled the total library space citywide.
Historically much better funded than the County of Los Angeles Public Library, libraries are allocated at least 0.0175% of property tax revenues under the Los Angeles City Charter.
Officials believed they would always have enough money to run the new facilities. But then came the recession and tough choices.
Police budgets were left mostly unscathed. But last year the council required the library system to pay for previously covered utility bills, pensions, health benefits and other costs.
A citywide hiring freeze, early retirements and layoffs cut the library staff by 28%, leaving the entire system with 800 employees. Reductions in services followed.
Further cuts to the library are possible this year, as city officials try to make up for a $360-million shortfall — but only if Measure L fails.
Gradually, over four years, the measure would double the amount of revenue designated to the library system by the charter. Eventually, the library budget would grow to about $130 million, from about $76 million. Branch libraries could go back to a six-day schedule, library officials say, and the city's seven regional libraries could once again be open every day.