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MLK Library to close on Sundays, leaving none open

DC's main library will soon be closed on Sundays, leaving the District with no libraries open that day. Libraries are an important part of our city, but budget cuts give the system and the people who rely on it few options.

Current hours of MLK Library. Photo by the author.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library at 901 G Street NW is the city's main branch. It's now open from 1 pm to 5 pm Sundays, and is the only DC Public Library open that day. After this week MLK and all branch libraries will be shuttered on Sunday.

"When faced with having to reduce library hours as a result of the FY2012 budget, closing the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library Sundays, as difficult as it is, was the least painful option," said a press release from the library, congruently stating their priority to be open as many hours as possible.

According to the statement, the library's local budget was reduced from $35.2 million in FY 2011 to $34.4 million in FY2012. Increases to provide staff and operate new libraries opening in the next fiscal year were offset by cuts to the book budget, operating hours, and other areas; ultimately creating a loss of $700,000. Although nearly a half dozen new or renovated libraries have opened since the fall of 2009, over the past five years nearly 100 full-time positions have been cut.

"In these wonderful, beautiful new buildings that we have built," says Toni White-Richardson, "if we keep cutting the staff, patrons are going to have to go get their own key, let themselves into the building, and the way the book budget looks they're going to have to bring their own books to read." White-Richardson is President of AFSCME 1808, which represents more than 250 DCPL employees. She testified at an April public hearing about the libraries.

When asked by Councilmember Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), then Chairman of the Committee on Libraries, Parks, and Recreation, if MLK should be closed on Sundays, Richardson responded, "I sit in MLK everyday—I look out my window, ok, I can hear, see, feel, and smell the energy that's downtown, in that corridor. We consider ourselves to be the cultural center" and to close the library would hurt the vitality of the area.

With the summer's committee re-shuffling by Council Chair Kwame Brown, Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) now heads the committee that oversees libraries. After public remarks at a recent book sale at MLK, Wells said in order for Sunday hours to be restored there have to be two things: a public will or demand and money in the budget. Since taking helm of the library committee, his office has fielded repeated calls and inquiries about MLK's Sunday hours.

According to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and other sources, the budget figure needed to keep MLK open on Sunday is $316,000. In separate emails, Brown said, "As a father of two small children, I support keeping libraries open on Sundays." When asked for specifics on how MLK's Sunday hours could be restored, Brown wrote, "I will look for all options."

"There's been a renaissance for libraries," says Emily Sheketoff, Executive Director of the American Library Association's Washington Office, "as librarians we've recognized that our service to the community has had to change."

In FY 2012 DCPL's overall share of the budget has been reduced to two-thirds of one percent. These levels are consistent with national trends. According to Sheketoff, the Library Services and Technology Act, the only federal program exclusively for libraries, funded across Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and related agencies' appropriations bill was cut by 11% or $24.5 million in the most recent federal budget.

The Mayor, President, and Congress are guilty of library short sightedness, Sheketoff, a city resident, said, by being "penny wise and pound foolish to not invest in libraries that build good citizens and good employees."

Libraries provide many services beyond providing books. They help jumpstart school readiness through active children's programming and they also provide meeting spaces to community groups. Additionally, they provide free computer classes to those who graduated before entry level jobs required online applications.

Libraries are where the rubber meets the road when it comes to meeting the basic service needs of many District residents. From applying for unemployment insurance to applying for a job at Best Buy, and even signing up for parts of Medicare, libraries play a vital role in our society.

"The fact that all of our branch libraries are not open on Sundays only speaks to the lack of governmental commitment to help out the people in the city," maintains Philip Pannell, a former member of the DC Public Library Board of Trustees.

Pannell, a resident of Congress Heights, asserts closed libraries disproportionally impact certain areas of the city. "It is particularly devastating to the economically challenged neighborhoods because you have kids right here in Ward 8 who don't have computers, they don't have encyclopedias or dictionaries. In many cases there are dysfunctional households that are not conducive to studying."

He wrly added, "What is the point of building the new libraries that are absolutely beautiful and then when it comes to a Sunday you have kid's noses pressed up against the window looking inside to a building that is not helping them?"

In nearby jurisdictions, Sunday hours vary. Seven of Montgomery County's twenty libraries maintain Sunday hours. Howard County libraries are open Sundays during the school year. Three of Arlington's nine branches are open 1pm - 9pm Sunday, and Alexandria's main branch is open on Sunday. All Prince George's County branches are closed Sundays.

John Muller is an associate librarian, journalist and historian. He has written two books, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC, Mark Twain in Washington, DC, and also writes at Death and Life of Old Anacostia


Add a comment »

Rather than have the entire system closed on Sundays, has it been considered to close MLK instead on a day when other branch libraries are open?

Another option to keep the main branch open 7 days a week would be to close other branch libraries each one day a week (one on Mondays, one on Tuesdays, and so forth) so as to achieve the necessary cost savings while minimizing the impact on the system at large.

by Greg on Sep 21, 2011 2:25 pm • linkreport

This is really sad. For some people, weekends are the only time they have to visit the library, especially when libraries close at the same time they get off from work (Silver Spring library, I'm looking at you).

I suspect that shorter library hours and Sunday closures creates a downward spiral for library funding. Libraries aren't open as often --> people have less opportunity to borrow books --> libraries are used less --> fewer late fees

Also, if libraries are open less, their prominence - and thus importance - in the community decreases, leading to less prioritization of funding for libraries.

by Colleen on Sep 21, 2011 3:12 pm • linkreport

@Greg, I thought the same thing. If MLK has to be closed one day/wk then close it on a day when other libraries are open, e.g. Monday. Your other suggestion is very good too.

by Tina on Sep 21, 2011 3:31 pm • linkreport

I actually echo all the commentors above:

There should never be a day where all libraries are closed. And if there is, it should NOT be a weekend day.

by greent on Sep 21, 2011 3:40 pm • linkreport

This is an old trick of municipalities...close something popular to make a point. Unfortunately, the point is they could and SHOULD keep the MLK Library open Sunday's...but city officials lack the will to remove the bloat in city government bureaucracy. Once again, the citizens of the District suffer because they have not demanded greater accountability from their city government. This would be the same lame city government now deciding to tax the achievers in DC. Tragic.

by Pelham1861 on Sep 21, 2011 4:02 pm • linkreport

I dont get it, arent Sundays a popular library day? Why not do like a museum and close on Mondays or Tuesdays?

Or just stagger the dates.

Library A closes on Mondays
Library B closes on Tuesdays
Library C closes on Wednesdays

The same with hours too.

Library A is open Wednesdays from 5am-6pm
Library B is open Wednesday from 10am-11pm
Library C is closed Wednesday

by JJJJJ on Sep 21, 2011 4:55 pm • linkreport

Staggering the hours across branches is inefficient (esp. if staff would have to shift) and patrons will easily forget what's open when. Also, many residents do not have easy access to more than one branch.

Libraries have been the first parts of DC govt to sustain cuts in hard times since the first Barry era, yet they are viewed favorably and used by all but the most affluent DCers. DC govt should look for fire a few middle managers. It would only take a few to make up the cost of keeping MLK open on Sunday. In any large organization I've seen middle management is usually the most redundant. There also are active "Friends" groups--they should be rallying support and raising money to close the gap.

by Rich on Sep 21, 2011 11:34 pm • linkreport

back in December when CM Cheh tried to remove the 1 million dollars for advertising solicitations for goods I sent an email suggesting that since those solicitations are now posted on the web, if the need for paper for non computer users was the reason to continue to spend a million dollars on newspaper advertising the need could be met by posting the solicitations in libraries. Of course this was ignored. I think it would be a good idea to reprogram that million to the libraries so that at least MLK could be open on Sundays

by Dan Maceda on Sep 22, 2011 9:34 am • linkreport

Are PCs used mainly by job hunters? Or just for Internet browsing? If used for job hunting, then open an Internet cafe and pay for it with sale of coffee, etc.

Do libraries even keep track of when the most people show up? Find the day that the least amount are there and use that as the day to cut back.

Will probably drive people to use e-books more.

by FJT on Sep 22, 2011 10:50 am • linkreport

They have lost nearly a third of thier budget over the last 5 years. This is going to hurt more than hours, it will hurt the number of publications they have, the number of databases and even if they can improve their technology over time. The real tragedgy is that unlike other cities DC does not have as strong a middle class that can scream and need and use libraries. We know poorer people need them, but the usage from what I understand is not quite there and well off folks just use a kindle. There really does need to be an outcry but I just don't see it happening. It has been very limited considering the number of cuts they have been taking over and over the last several years.

by Charlotte Osborn-Bensaada on Sep 22, 2011 1:37 pm • linkreport

As Tommy Wells stated, there has to be public demand for the DC libraries to stay open on Sundays and to also possibly restore the morning and evening hours of MLK and the branches (in 2007 all libraries used to be open M-Th 9:30am - 9:00pm, Fri & Sat 9:30am-5:30pm and Sundays depending on the season). The city council needs to hear from DC residents at both the oversight and budget hearings in the spring and they need to write/email/call Council Member Wells, Chairman Brown, and the Council Member of the ward they live in.

While the suggestion for having MLK close on another day that the branches are open is a good one, there are typically library programs that run during the week at MLK. Since the library has only been open 1-5pm on Sundays and there is also typically much less programming, that was probably a reason for closing it on Sundays.

Again, though, things are only going to change if folks let the city council know what they want and how the limited library hours are affecting them. Typically very few people outside of organizations such as the Friends of the Library groups show up to testify at the hearings on the library. It would be very helpful for the council to hear from others other than those who typically testify at the library hearings.

by Ben on Sep 22, 2011 2:46 pm • linkreport

It is astounding that this is even a discussion with the city having just announced 89 million surplus last week, and the total cost to keep MLK open was ~320K a year, the total library budget reduction this year being about a million.

Let alone the ~21 million dollars a year extra the Council just drummed up two days ago.

by freely on Sep 22, 2011 2:57 pm • linkreport

MLK used to be anyway just a warming center. Keep the small libraries open in the neighborhoods.

by TJF on Sep 22, 2011 4:02 pm • linkreport

DC should merge the public library and the UDC library systems. Cut the duplicative resources and use the savings to improve the overall merged system. Since UDC is a commuter school, this would benefit students who could take advantage of the university library from their neighborhoods and would obviously benefit the city as well as it could draw on the university's resources.

A win-win that would save money.

Will never happen.

by seaster on Sep 22, 2011 5:39 pm • linkreport

$316K, eh?

How much money has the city lost on scandals this year?

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Sep 25, 2011 10:39 pm • linkreport

I am baffled by this decision! As someone who works during the week (as many people do!) the weekends are the only time that we can visit the library...

If you don't make the library available when the majority of the people can visit or successful programs take place or children can do homework then you are just helping to pave the way for libraries to become a thing of memory.

Many good solutions have been presented above...I hope that someone listens. Who do we reach out to let our voices be heard?

by Becky Peters on Sep 26, 2011 3:17 pm • linkreport

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