The Los Angeles Board of Library Commissioners this week ordered nine city libraries to close on Sundays, citing a city government hiring freeze that will keep it from replacing an estimated 200 retiring library workers. And in Pasadena, home to academic powerhouse Caltech, public school officials say they'll close school libraries next year, among other cuts, if a local tax measure doesn't pass in May.
"Every librarian and their staff received pink slips in our district," said Susan Hernandez, president of the Pasadena High School Parent, Teacher and Student Association. "How does a school function without a library?"
But the problem is not California's alone. At the biannual Public Librarians Conference in Portland, Ore., this week, the main topic of discussion has been navigating budget cutbacks at the same time that recession-fed patronage of libraries has increased, said Camila Alire, president of the American Library Association.
"It's kind of a double-edged sword," Alire told AOL News in a phone interview during a break in conference sessions. "We have people going to public libraries, using them to sort of retool and find new jobs, get help in how to complete a resume and how to do effective interviews and things like that, and hours are being cut back."
The libraries' money woes are part of acute budget crises that vary in intensity around the nation. In California, state lawmakers are trying to close a $20 billion gap for 2010-2011 -- after already lopping $26 billion from the current budget. State funds for schools and local governments have been restricted, prison inmates have been released early, parole restrictions have been lightened and, for a time last year, construction projects were halted.
Now it's the libraries' turn, and librarians say they fear the deep cuts will not be temporary.
"Those of us in public libraries know this isn't going to go away in a year or two," said Kim Bui-Burton, president of the California Library Association and director of the Monterey City Library. "The economic difficulties for people and for cities is going to continue. There was a book out a few years ago called 'The New Normal,' and this is the new normal. We're just trying to figure out how to adjust to this new reality."
Under the Los Angeles library board decision Thursday, city libraries will see hours pared, including later openings some mornings and earlier closings some evenings. But the biggest effect is the Sunday closures, effective April 11. Programs such as children's story hours, puppet shows and reading clubs will either be canceled or rescheduled for other days.
The closures will also kill access to the Internet for a day, a blow for low-income users who rely on library computers.
"We have over 2,200 free computers available to the public, with Internet access, so people can come in and use computers for homework, for job hunting, all kinds of things," library spokesman Peter Persic said. "That won't be available."
Other libraries have been even harder hit. In November, the suburban city of Colton abruptly shut all three of its city libraries and fired 17 staffers. After a community uproar the City Council relented a month later and reopened the main branch.
For Alire, the toughest cuts to witness are those to school libraries.
"The travesty about this is [that] this is where kids start learning lifelong skills," she said, adding that schoolchildren learn how to research and "discriminate between good and bad information" in part through their school libraries.
"Those skills follow you through the rest of your life. If you don't have school libraries, and the proper certified people working in those libraries, it hurts our children," Alire said. "The better informed we are as a nation, the better we are able to maintain this democratic society of ours."