Several library users fought tears Wednesday as they implored Spokane library trustees to keep the city’s East Side branch open.
“This place provides access,” said Spokane resident Scott Engelhard, his voice cracking. “It’s not just literally walking into the door – but access to knowledge.”
More than 100 people attended the library board hearing at the East Central Community Center, which is next door to the endangered library.
Facing a more than $500,000 deficit, library officials have proposed closing East Side because it has the lowest gate count and lowest circulation of the system’s six branches.
Many who testified, however, stressed that the library is in a low-income neighborhood where residents have less access to transportation, computers and other services. Retiree Richard Smith told trustees that the branch has higher numbers compared with most other branches on a per-square-foot and per-hour basis. East Side, Hillyard and Indian Trail are only open 22 1/2 hours a week.
Susan Burnes, the library and media teacher at Sheridan Elementary, testified with about a dozen pupils by her side.
“This is a neighborhood that the kids don’t feel real safe in for many reasons,” Burnes said.
“That library is a safe place that they can come to, and, believe me, they use it, especially in the summertime. My kids are up in arms, let me tell you.”
Library director Pat Partovi began the hearing by explaining why East Side was chosen for elimination.
In 2004, during the last significant budget crisis, the board cut hours at all branches rather than close one.
She said the result was that library use shifted to the branches open the most.
“People appear to be choosing convenient open hours over convenient locations,” she said.
She said eliminating a branch is more “sustainable” than continuing to trim from the whole system. Officials say the 2012 budget will be worse because the system will use up much of its reserves in 2011.
If the branch closes, Partovi said the building could house a computer lab the community center plans to open with a federal grant.
“We think that using the library branch for this public computing center would be a good use of the building,” she said.
She said that the library system may be able to provide book delivery, book return and other services to the center, as well.
“This does position us best for recovery,” said Partovi, pausing as she briefly became emotional during her presentation.
“All of us that work here view it as a mission. We do not do this lightly.”
The board is expected to make a final decision by the end of the year.
Elder Dexter Baker, of Deliverance Family Center, said the East Side Library gave him a foundation that helped him mature from being a gang member to a recent graduate of Whitworth University.
“Thanks to this library, I have changed my life tremendously,” Baker said in an interview after the hearing.
Baker noted that dozens of homes in the neighborhood are being torn down to make way for freeway expansion.
“With the devastation that’s going on with the neighborhood, now they want to come in and take the library away,” he said. “We can pave a road, so why can’t we keep a library open to pave a future for our children?”
Library Trustee Rick White, a Spokane County District Court judge, was the lone vote in 2004 against a budget plan that he said too severely cut the hours at East Side and Hillyard. After Wednesday’s testimony, White said he’s “even more convinced that this is a mistake.”
“I felt the emotions of this evening,” White said.