Are local libraries in process of checking out?

Megan Holland

Lauren Dubuisson is a library lover. The passion started when she was a child checking out novels every week like "Dune," "Catcher in the Rye" or something from the "Sweet Valley High" series. She liked the musty smell of the books, the warmth of the library in the Anchorage winter, the endless possibilities of escapism.

She wishes she could continue that fondness, but as an adult the Loussac Public Library just doesn't do it for her. The 24-year-old wants it to be cheery like some bookstores around town. She wants it to swaddle her with knowledge and curiosity. She wants it to demand that she sit down, cozy up in a chair, and just read.

Instead it feels like she's in a tomb. She opens the books and now she notices spilled coffee and remnants of gum on pages. "I always think of how Francie in 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn' absolutely 100 percent adored her local library," she said. "I want to adore my local library like that -- but as of now, it feels like a gloomy-Eeyore-esque dungeon."

When Loussac closed on weekends and Mondays last summer, it just seemed like more disappointment.

Dubuisson wasn't the only one dismayed by the closings at the city's flagship library branch last summer. Library Director Karen Keller was also disheartened, but with the city's budget woes and a directive to send her staff on furlough she felt forced to do it. Now next year's proposed budget is looking even tighter and Keller said she'll likely be cutting the hours of the city's smaller libraries to reduce costs.

The city's budget problems are bringing to the fore an institution that for years has quietly served its patrons in the background of other city services like police and fire and public transportation. The library system's struggle has sparked an outpouring of support as well as soul-searching questions about how libraries should stay relevant in the digital 21st century and what a community's priorities should be in an era of tight money.

If the Anchorage Assembly approves the $7.4 million budget for next year that the city's new mayor, Dan Sullivan, has proposed, the libraries will have lost 13 percent of their city funding in just two years. (The libraries get some additional money from grants, donations and other sources.)

TOUGH CHOICES

Sullivan, a fiscal hawk in charge of the city's budget since July, said he and the current Assembly members are having to make tough choices. The budget has been growing for years and now the city is amid a recession-induced revenue crisis, he said.

His proposed cuts are across the board, he said. All departments are affected. "We just can't print money. ... Is the library more important than me laying off another firefighter so that I can keep the library open another hour or two? Those are the priorities you have to decide."

The Assembly hasn't taken up the discussion on the budget yet. Assembly Chairwoman Debbie Ossiander said she anticipates the libraries being one of the items at the top of the list of vigorous debate this month.

Library supporters are rallying. They say the situation is dire, that Anchorage's libraries are fighting for survival. They have hired consultants and are calling for a town-hall meeting this Tuesday to look at the future. They say there's high library usage. They say Anchorage is not spending as much on its libraries as other cities of similar size. They say that in the mid-1980s Anchorage had 10 library branches while today it has five, with one more in Mountain View set to open next year.

The budget cuts come at a time when libraries around the country are rethinking their role in the 21st century. National library associations are redefining libraries beyond the book depositories and lenders of the past. Modern libraries also are digital centers where information is exchanged and Internet is available to those who don't have it at home. They are community hubs where people can learn skills they need in the digital era. They are evolving beyond quiet reading spaces to bustling places of public discourse. They are striving to make information available 24-7, not just during library hours.

HERE COMES THE 21ST CENTURY

Anchorage's public libraries have been transitioning to the digital era.

The library has quintupled its spending on audio, visual and digital materials since 2000.

Cardholders are taking out multimedia like never before, according to library records.

More people are visiting the library to access databases they can't get for free on the Internet, like financial reports or genealogy databases.

And, more residents are discovering the virtual library where users can type in their card number and download free audio books to their iPods.

But the libraries lack enough public computers to serve demand, librarians say. The Loussac has just about 35 PCs. It is common to wait 30 minutes for your one-hour allotted time, said librarian Zane Treesh. Customers complain the bandwidth throughout the building is slow.

Librarian Stetson Momosor works at the Muldoon branch. Her job has changed a lot since she began working in the Anchorage libraries 20 years ago. "It's a fine line in terms of trying to guide people to the technology that they need," she said, "and yet, we're not equipped, I'm not equipped, to be a troubleshooter on a computer."

She thinks the libraries need to hire more tech-support staff.

WHO ARE LIBRARIES FOR?

Librarians say the libraries draw a cross-section of the city.

Retirees read the newspapers.

Teens tap subscription databases or their high school teachers insist on sources not found online.

The poor and those who lack computers at home buy airline tickets or apply for their Permanent Fund dividends.

That the public library should be a place where the poor and unconnected can get online, learn and hunt for jobs is a common thread throughout national library associations.

But not everyone agrees that Anchorage libraries need to be that.

"We are the most wired community I think on the face of the Earth," Sullivan said. "Between all the different cafes that offer wireless ... I don't think that the library is particularly the only source that people might have for Internet access. There's lots of choices out there."

He said only a very small number of people don't have access to a computer anymore.

The mayor said he's a frequent user of Loussac. Last week he returned John Grisham's novel "The Associate." "They know me well," he said. "I think I pay enough fines bringing my books back late to pretty much support a position over there."

Sullivan wants the city to look at other options to expanding its libraries, like opening the city's school libraries for public use. He said they are a great resource not getting used after the last bell rings.

"It seems like people are scrambling like crazy everywhere to figure it out," librarian Momosor said of libraries across the country. "We have to weigh things. Do we really need to have this? And we can't go below this? What is our core? What's our purpose?"

Find Megan Holland online at adn.com/contact/mholland or call 257-4343.


By MEGAN HOLLAND
mholland@adn.com