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Originally published Sunday, November 1, 2009 at 12:20 AM

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Seattle library faces budget cuts

The Seattle Public Library isn't the only library system in the nation feeling budget woes.

Seattle Times staff reporter

With the Seattle Public Library facing a 5 percent or $2.6 million budget cut, it says it will have to close most branch libraries two days a week next year, as well as closing all libraries for a week.

But Seattle isn't the nation's only library feeling the pain of the economy. According to the American Library Association (ALA), 41 percent of the states report declining funds to support their libraries, many which are financed by state funds, unlike Seattle's, which is funded by the city.

According to the ALA, Seattle, with its central library and 26 branches, is one of the top cities of its size in the nation for library visits, more than 6 million a year. Nearly one in 11 Seattle residents use the library, which is at least double the rate of many other library systems in the country.

Topping the chart is the Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) Public Library in Ohio, which reports a per-capita visit of 12.22. Boston is much lower, with just 5.89 visits per capita.

The Cuyahoga Library, with its 28 branches, is funded by both state and local taxes and is facing a 30 percent cut, said spokeswoman Linda Walters, and, for the first time, is closing all but seven of its branches on Sundays. It's also had layoffs and a shrinking acquisition budget.

"We've always had a very supportive public," Walters said. "And we've noticed a large increase in visits and circulation. People can't afford to buy books."

In Pittsburgh, home of the original Carnegie Libraries, five of 19 branches will close next year. For the branches remaining open, there will be a 23 percent cut in hours, said spokeswoman Suzanne Thinnes. "The community's a little upset," she said, adding that the city's library system, funded by state and local money, is looking at a $6 million deficit by 2014.

In Pennsylvania, state support for libraries was cut 27 percent and the state library lost 48 percent of its budget.

Seattle Public Library reports that library usage in the city has soared, from 4.5 million in-person and virtual visitors in 2000 to 13.2 million last year.

A 2008 survey of America's most-literate cities, determined by its library saturation, put Seattle fifth. Cleveland was first.

A usage survey by the Washington State Library found that, between 2007 and 2008, circulation in surveyed libraries, including Seattle's, rose 11 percent and computer usage in the libraries grew almost 10 percent. The survey reported a 20 percent rise in virtual library visits, where people signed onto the library online.

The Seattle Library proposal for 2010 would cut service hours by 23 percent, and 21 of the branches would limit access to 35 hours a week.

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The proposed 2010 capital budget for the library is $1,031,000, down 37 percent from the 2009 adopted budget. This pays for major maintenance on all the library's 27 buildings.

Under the plan, only six libraries will be open seven days a week: the Central Library and Douglass-Truth, Lake City, Ballard, Rainier Beach and Southwest libraries. The rest will be open five days.

Library officials have proposed options to the City Council, which is now deliberating the 2010 budget.

According to library Director Susan Hildreth, the Library Board has offered three options to the council:

It could operate three more branches seven days a week, for about $430,000; it could add six more for $860,000, or it could add three seven-day branches and restore a sixth day at all branches for about $1 million.

Councilwoman Jean Godden, chair of the council's budget committee, which will take up library issues Monday, said libraries likely will get more money. "There probably will be changes [in the budget]," she said. "We don't like to close libraries."

In response to questions from Friends of the Seattle Public Library, both candidates for Seattle mayor said they want to protect the library budget.

"Libraries are a crucial part of the social and civic fabric of any great city," said candidate Joe Mallahan. "The people of Seattle made a major commitment to our libraries when we passed the Libraries for All levy in 1998. It's important, therefore, that the mayor work very hard to keep up the city's end of the bargain. I will do all I can as your next mayor to prevent reductions in general-fund spending for our libraries."

Candidate Mike McGinn said, "Having the libraries closed for a week indicates our failing as a city; if we cannot prioritize, do more with less, and keep our libraries open, we don't have a city that works. In some cases, access to computers and the Internet is essential for those who may not have those resources elsewhere."

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

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