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Dallas Finally Stopped Cutting Libraries, But the Damage is Already Done

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Libraries, as we already know, have not been spared City Manager Mary Suhm's budget cleaver in recent years. The library budget has been chopped and quartered like perhaps no other city department, having been sliced in half since peaking at $36 million peak in 2007. That's decimated staffing levels, hours of operation, materials budget -- just about everything.

The hemorrhaging seems to be over now, with the city promising to keep its locations open for 40 hours per week and add $1 million to its paltry budget for new materials -- almost enough to cover all the 50 Shades books they need.

It's a good start, but a lot of damage has been done over the past five years. Between 2008 and 2010, the number of visitors at city libraries dropped by more than 20 percent, from 6.3 million to 5 million. According to an interim report on the city's strategic plan, the number of people visiting the library in the six-month period between October and April dropped by 14 percent over the same period a year before.

A lot of the reduction in usage stems from the draconian cuts to libraries' operating hours. If people could visit the library Sunday or Monday, a lot of them would. But the hours of operation stabilized last year, and usage has continued to drop.

Kate Park, executive director of the Friends of the Dallas Public Library, isn't quite sure why. One obvious factor is the materials budget, cuts to which have limited the amount and type of new books libraries can buy.

"If the library's not going to have the books you want, you're not going to go," she said.

No doubt budget cuts have also damaged the library's brand. What was a quiet place to go on the weekend to find that book you'd been wanting to read is now the place that's locked tight every time you go and doesn't have the book anyway. Just the other day, Park says she encountered a dishwasher trying to get into Central Library on Monday, his only day off, to study for the GED. It was, of course, closed.

Park thinks library usage will rebound as the library budget is restored, as she is optimistic will happen. The extra $1 million for library materials for the coming year is a great start, and she's confident that libraries will be a priority as tax revenues continue to creep upward.

"It's not going to happen overnight," Park said. "They didn't cut the budget overnight, but it seems like everything's moving in positive direction."

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