warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

L.A. Libraries Seek Reprieve From Jerry Brown

Dan Watson |
January 14, 2011 | 10:37 a.m. PST

Staff Reporter

L.A. library officials met this week to discuss the impact Jerry Brown's proposal to cut all state support for libraries would have on their already reduced hours. (Dan Watson)
L.A. library officials met this week to discuss the impact Jerry Brown's proposal to cut all state support for libraries would have on their already reduced hours. (Dan Watson)

As the people of Los Angeles drive forward with a measure to increase funds to the Los Angeles Public Library, a new proposal by California Gov. Jerry Brown threatens to derail the plans as the state continues to deal with dire financial deficits.

Facing urgent budget concerns, Brown has proposed eliminating all state funds to libraries in the next budget, a $30 million shortfall to the state system at large.

Already the Los Angeles Public Library has been hard-squeezed, bringing passionate pleas for a return to full funding — others say the measure to do so is misguided and misleading.

Wide-ranging cuts this year by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council included taking away $22 million for the 2010-11 library system budget through an unprecedented elimination of library hours. Axed were all Monday hours across the 73 branches, as well as Sunday at the Central Library and eight others.

“It was the first time in the 140 years that the Los Angeles Public Library has been around that it has had to cut services,” said Brenda Breaux, public relations specialist for the system.

In an attempt to coagulate the cuts, the people of Los Angeles are scheduled to vote on Measure L in March, the Los Angeles Reassignment of Funds for Library System. If passed, it would require a higher share of property tax revenues to be earmarked for libraries, diverting away an estimated $18 million a year from other programs in the city’s general operating budget .

Heralded as a way to return the library to its former hours, not all see the plan as a failsafe relocation of funds.

“It sounds good, it gets the elected officials off the hook,” said Los Angeles citizen Joyce Dillard, who was the lead signature on the voter guide’s opposition to Measure L. “But when they leave, someone will have to address it.”

According to Dillard, the General Service departments most likely to take the hit for the libraries would be, in order, police, fire, general services, recreation and parks, transportation, information technology or the city attorney’s office (each of which hold a higher budget than the library system, she said).

“The loss of services might cost lives,” she said.

Proponents of Measure L say the former, and possible looming cuts, have already deeply impacted the lives of many.

For Lupie Leyva, the senior librarian of the Central Library’s Teen’Scape program, the cuts have meant added stress on librarians and the needed to turn away kids.

“We have kids saying ‘I can’t come in on Sunday!’ A lot of kids do their homework on Sunday because it’s due Monday,” she said.

Teen’Scape is the young adult section of the library reserved for those aged 12 to 19. Inside the second-floor program are shelves of books and 24 public-access computers with Internet and research databases. The program also assists in homework, job searches in addition to classes.

The state’s shrinking school budget has similarly impacted the library.

“As public schools in particular lose their libraries, we essentially become a school library, particularly Teen’Scape,” said Leyva.

Teen’Scape’s most heralded “graduate” — as Leyva coins them — was Khadijah Williams, whose story from homelessness to Harvard inspired an entire nation on Oprah. Williams maintained order in her education despite a life among pimps, prostitutes and drug users while she moved between shelters, armories and homelessness with her mother.

Because of the budget cuts, Leyva has had to turn away kids.

“We’re trying to pick up the lack,” she said. “We certainly feel overwhelmed on certain days.”

An estimated 15,000 youths are turned away each Monday throughout the system.

Ilse Perez, 18, has come to Teen’Scape the last three years to escape the commotion at home.

“I love books, I think books are special,” she said. “There’s a way to look at them and touch them. Personally, my sister has an iPad, but I don’t like it. I think books are special. I think it’s something people should never get rid of.”

Kenyetta Grate came to Teen’Scape after all other avenues for finding a venue failed her. Hoping to put on a fashion show through her own youth program, Sarahs’s Daughters Mentoring Program, she found $2,500 to be too expensive for her non-profit.

At Teen’Scape, it was free. To her, the library is more than books.

“To be honest, it’s a place of peace,” she said.

A place more and more are attending, according to the numbers, which as of July 2010 accounted for 16 million people in the fiscal year, as compared to the 14 million in 2005.

“We’ve had more people visit the library than ever even with the rise in digital books, because we’re more than books,” said Breaux of PR.

“It’s not that I’m against libraries,” said Dillard. “What really isn’t happening in the city of Los Angles is the full disclosure of funds.”

LA Chief Administrative Officer Miguel Santana told the city council that if approved, the measure would force cuts to funds of another area of the city’s budget.

“This is the wrong time for Measure L,” she said. “It would be more impactful when the economy is better.”

For some, the library is an economic opportunity in itself.

Phillip Saffell is one of Central Library’s most frequent visitors — in fact, to him it serves as a quasi-home.

“I stick to the same routine: I get up early in the morning, still the same time at 3:30 in the morning, I go to the library, I go back and go home,” he said. “It’s the same thing over and over. I keep the same routine.”

The library, during its business hours, serves as a home, and place of hope, for many homeless patrons. Saffell uses a particular booth to produce his art, as documented in Judy Muller’s award-winning broadcast piece for KCET.

“I want him to do a portrait of me for my kids,” said public safety officer Rachel Hunter, who smiles upon seeing Saffell most every day.

Public safety officer Gus Kyles, has “a great deal of like for him,” he said.

Cuts to his General Service department have impacted the library in a whole new way.

“Altogether in the central area of Los Angeles, we have the greatest amount of crime in the library itself, because when they get out of jail, they come here,” he said. “They still do what they did on the streets or in the jailhouses. That’s why we’re here. But with Phillip, there are no challenges.”

According to Saffell, “Ninety-seven percent (of the homeless) come here just to get out of the rain.”

Others use the computers to search for jobs, relax or study.

“I was coming here every day, even in the rain. I had an umbrella,” he said. “Not this Monday, but the Monday past when it was raining, cold and windy, it was closed. It was freezing. I was so angry and so mad because my hands were so cold they were hurting. So ya, I wanted the library to be open. A lot of people are angry in here that it was closed.”

To reach Dan Watson, click here.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.