Current hours of MLK Library. Photo by the author.

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.

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.