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Washington’s Governor Proposes Closing State Library to Save Money
Posted On February 11, 2002
UPDATE! — Weekly News Digest, 3/25/02

The governor's office in the state of Washington has proposed closing the Washington State Library by this October. This move is part of an effort to reduce overall state spending by more than $500 million to solve a $1.2 billion shortfall in the second year of Washington's biennial budget. The budget problems are attributed to an $800 million reduction in revenue caused by the recession and $400 million in additional spending related to recent initiatives that have raised spending and cut taxes in the state.

Reaction to the proposed closing is one of utter surprise for many familiar with the situation. Just this past December, Washington spent $1.5 million in one-time costs to move the library to a new facility, deemed "temporary," while its former site is used by the state senate, whose own quarters are being repaired as a result of earthquake damage. In fact, the state had signed a 10-year lease for the library's new 50,000-square-foot Tumwater facility, at a cost of $75,000 per month in rent.

Nancy Zussy, state librarian for Washington, feels that the proposal to close the library was virtually un-researched and amounts to, in effect, an "easy target" for a state government in financial disarray. She points out that the entire budget for the library and its 145 employees is just under $9 million, a veritable drop in the bucket.

If the governor's proposal succeeds, Washington will be the first and only state in the U.S. to operate without a state library, putting in jeopardy an additional $3 million in federal Library Services and Technology Act monies now used to benefit libraries across the state. These funds are currently paid to the library, in accordance with federal requirements that mandate that they be paid to a "designated ... library development agency" that has active programs and services promoting local library development. Matching state funds are also part of the federal requirements.

The Washington State Library collection is also at issue. The designated depository for about 1 million state and 1.3 million federal publications, the library also collects and makes accessible the most complete collection of Washington state newspapers, "dating back to before statehood." The governor's proposal would move the collection into other libraries throughout the state, most likely into the University of Washington (UW), which is also a state and federal depository. UW notes, however, that its collection is intended to serve its faculty and students, and is less accessible to the average citizen. In addition, the university has stated that it will need additional space and staff to host the collection.

Bill Ptacek, director of the King County Public Library system (KCPL), the largest public library in the state, says that the collection is of less concern to KCPL than the loss of the facilitator role now played by the Washington State Library. In particular, its active role in negotiating statewide licenses for electronic databases would be missed, as would its ongoing efforts to assist mostly small local and rural libraries. And naturally, everyone is concerned about the potential loss of federal support monies in the event that the library closes.

So, is the modern state library a service agency rather than a collection? This approach is already taken in at least three states—Colorado, Maryland, and Massachusetts—where the former archives of the state libraries are actively managed and housed in major public libraries (Denver, Baltimore, and Boston). In each of these cases, however, the public libraries already had archive collections and expertise in their management.

One proposal now in front of Washington's House of Representatives calls for moving the Washington State Library's collection into the Department of Archives, while leaving "certain functions" within the library itself. Zussy sees this effort as a friendly one, opening a door for maintaining the library against the possibility of full closure.

According to Ed Penhale of the State Office of Financial Management, which serves as the governor's budget office, the legislature is now in session debating not just this proposal but many more in its attempt to address all financial issues. Final voting is set for March 14, so it's a wait-and-see period for Zussy and the state library. No one is ready to predict where this story will end. For her part, Zussy has met with over 40 legislators and has been actively making the library's case since the end of December, when the governor's proposal was announced.

A frequent question is how this proposed closing can be happening in a high tech, information-oriented state like Washington: the home of Amazon, Microsoft, and the Gates Library Foundation, which in itself is now the largest single funding body for libraries worldwide. Calls to the Gates Library Foundation went unanswered, but knowledgeable professionals who were questioned expressed the opinion that the foundation would not interfere with what is essentially a state budget matter.

One silver lining for the Washington State Library may be that, thanks to this battle for survival, it is suddenly much more visible than in the past. According to a state librarian from another state, this is the key to ultimate survival and success. The "background" role played by many state libraries may well be coming back to haunt them—local library efforts made possible with state library support are seen as purely local. And use of the state library collection is small: only 50 people per day, according to a January 28 Seattle Times article.

When asked to offer some advice, Zussy said: "That's difficult to give. We by no means saw this coming. The more we look into it and hear from others, there was no analysis or critical thinking beforehand. We may never know why we were selected for this dubious honor. However, it is clear that a number of profession-wide misconceptions lie close to the surface here: ‘it's all on the Internet,' ‘it's free, reliable, and easy to find,' ‘state libraries duplicate other libraries,' ‘other libraries could easily and at no or low cost take up their duties.' State librarians—all librarians—should analyze what they do, identify value added and uniqueness, and then pursue and market their own niche in the information marketplace."

Good advice for librarians everywhere.

Rebecca Lenzini is the publisher of The Charleston Advisor and The Charleston Report.

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